Runtime: 91 Minutes
Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin
By Bianca Garner
The tagline for Ingmar Bergman‘s “Cries and Whispers” sums up the plot nicely: Four women dressed in white in a mansion painted red…haunted by whispers and cries. The film’s runtime is just over an hour and a half, taking place in one location with four key players. By the end of the film, we see each woman for who they truly are: a product of their patriarchal society. Repressed, depressed, manic and dying. One can finally cry out and express their pain and torment. Another remains devoted and empathetic. The other two can only whisper as they struggle to contain their emotions and become consumed by them.
The film takes place at the turn-of-the-century in Sweden; the cancer-stricken, and dying Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is visited in her isolated rural mansion by her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann). Both Karin and Maria are so lost in their own emotional needs and desires, so immersed in their own inner turmoil and narcissism, that they seem incapable of empathy for Agnes’ suffering. The only woman who does seem consciously aware of Agnes’ pain, is her maid Anna (Kari Sylwan, who has endured her own personal tragedy, the loss of her daughter). However, it is through this pain and grief that Anna has developed empathy for others, rather than allow herself to become consumed by her own emotions.
Bergman takes us on a series of flashbacks that allow us to grasp the history between the four women. these occur when each woman is paired with a backdrop of vivid blood red, and the whispering sounds build up around them. We discover how Maria and Karin are still being haunted by their past. Maria has committed adultery with David, a doctor (Erland Josephson). Her husband returns home the next morning and realises what has happened, and attempts suicide. However, rather than rush to his aid, Maria doesn’t seem to respond to his pain, too caught up in her own emotions. Maria is self-centred and immature, Bergman brilliantly illustrates this by showing her curled up in what we can only assume is her childhood bedroom surrounded by dolls.
“By the end of the film, we see each woman for who they truly are: a product of their patriarchal society. Repressed, depressed, manic and dying.”
Like Maria, Karin has also experienced issues in her relationship. Her husband Fredrik (Georg Årlin) is cold, distant and indifferent towards her. There is no love or warmth in their marriage. This has led Karin to shut down emotionally from others, she can’t stand being touched by anyone even her sister, Maria. Karin can only express her emotions and her suffering by self-harm in what is perhaps one of cinema’s most shocking and frankly disturbing scene. Bergman is a masterful filmmaker, he shows us just enough for the imagery to be violent and impactful.
Unlike other filmmakers, he restrains himself from going too far, and we never see a close-up of the act. The shot of Karin sitting in bed, painting a smile on her face with her own blood, is powerful. Thulin’s facial expressions– her furrowed brow as she struggles not to burst into tears and wide triumphant grin– are a perfect demonstration of her extraordinary levels of talent. Even though she barely makes a sound, we get the impression that she’s screaming on the inside, thanks to Thulin’s expressions.
“Bergman is a masterful filmmaker, he shows us just enough for the imagery to be violent and impactful…Unlike other filmmakers, he restrains himself from going too far.”
In Agnes’ own flashback, we discover that her mother was emotionally distant towards her, favouring Maria. One day, Agnes came across her mother in a moment of sorrow. It was this rare incident that allowed Agnes to develop empathy towards others. To be able to understand and share the feelings of someone else demonstrated Agnes’ emotional intelligence. Other children would have taken delight in seeing their cold, distant mother in anguish but Agnes saw her for what she really was…human.
Like Agnes, Anna also demonstrates empathy towards others. She is the only person to really try and comfort Agnes, holding her to her breast in a comforting manner. Anna has lost her daughter, but rather than allow her grief to consume her, she comforts those going pain and turmoil. Maria, Karin and their husbands seem nonplussed by Anna’s work, looking down at her. They believe that she simply took care of Agnes as it was part of her job, and can’t seem to comprehend the concept of having empathy towards your fellow man.
One has to wonder, whether Bergman saw himself as Karin and Maria, or did he see himself as Anges and Anna. Despite telling the story from a female perspective, it’s clear that “Cries and Whispers” was a deeply personal story to Bergman. He conceived the story during a lonely, unhappy time on Fårö where he lived. He described a recurring dream of four women in white clothing in a red room, whispering to each other. He said that this symbolised his childhood view of the soul as a faceless person who was black on the outside, representing shame, and red on the inside.
“The use of bold primary colours such as white, red and black all play a vital role in conveying the inner turmoils of the sisters…Bergman’s screenplay featured a note from the director, “I think of the inside of the human soul, as a membranous red.””
The use of bold primary colours such as white, red and black all play a vital role in conveying the inner turmoils of the sisters. According, to Roger Ebert’s review, Bergman’s screenplay featured a note from the director, “I think of the inside of the human soul, as a membranous red.” The colour red implies passion and more importantly, danger. The danger associated when we only allow ourselves to be driven by passion alone.
When Maria seduces the doctor in the flashback, she is dressed in a tight, red lace dress. Maria’s passion and lust have gotten the best of her and she is unable to control her emotional urges. She may get her moment of passion but it doesn’t bring her long-lasting happiness. Like Maria, Karin’s soul is also represented by the colour red, when she smears her face with blood. And, like Maria, this moment of rebelliousness is fleeting, and she soon rebuilds her tough exterior shell, closing herself down emotionally.
In the present, the three sisters are dressed in white, the colour of innocence and rebirth. It’s clear that Agnes is transcending, Bergman doesn’t shy away with the religious allegories and when Agnes passes away she is positioned in a similar fashion to that of Jesus Christ upon the cross. Agnes has managed to let go of her past trauma and has gained emotional intelligence, she has become ethereal in that sense. When Agnes is in pain she doesn’t try to mask it; she doesn’t try to bury it or suppress it but instead lets it out in animalistic wails. Perhaps by dressing Maria and Karin in white too, Bergman is implying that there is still hope for them to open up to each other and address their emotional issues?
In the end, Bergman offers us a hopeful, comforting message. Anna reads from Agnes’ diary about an afternoon that all three sisters spent together on a swing. Agnes’ words can be heard: “come what may, this is happiness.” Yes, the past and the present can be painful, but we cannot allow old wounds to determine our future. We have to find our voice and cry out, or we’ll be doomed to live on in whispers.