Ingmar Bergman is a director who continually splits opinion – it’s fair to say that his films aren’t exactly easy watches, and while some of this films are rightly lauded (Persona and Wild Strawberries are incredible) some of his more recognised works leave me cold.
Cries And Whispers is one of Bergman’s most draining and yet emotionally resonant films – part Henrik Ibsen, part Yasujiro Ozu, it’s his only film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and 50 years on it has lost none of it’s power.
Sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) come together to care for their dying sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson). The two sisters have radically different personalities; both are stuck in loveless marriages – Karin is stern and reserved, repressing all emotion, while Maria actively seeks romance from unsuitable lovers – specifically the family doctor. Their contrasting personalities are shown in a series of vignettes, and the cold relationship is contrasted with the warmth shown towards Agnes by the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan), who often appears to be the only person who genuinely cares for her.
Liv Ullmann was a mainstay of Bergman’s films, (appearing in 10 in total) and she brings both humanity and coldness to Maria – the unflinching close-up of her face as the doctor harshly and relentlessly critiques her appearance is incredible – her face barely moves but there are almost imperceptible changes in her expression that betray her inner pain.
Ingrid Thulin is even more impressive as the habitually repressed Karin. The depiction of her marriage to an older, Prussian husband is horribly cold, and fraught with a sense of dread, building to one truly shocking moment that’s horrific without being gratuitous. It seems that Bergman is depicting Karin as cold and hard-hearted, but the closing scenes reveal the reason she buries her feelings so deeply. Rather than being unfeeling, she feels things on a much deeper level than the frivolous Maria, who rejects Karin’s affections after coercing her into a painful outpouring of emotion.
Best of all is Kari Sylwan as the maid Anna, the one person whose feelings for Agnes are entirely altruistic, but without the freedom of expression afforded to the two sisters by dint of their status, she must convey an awful lot of subtle changes and emotions almost entirely non-verbally, which she does perfectly.
The vivid scenes of Agnes’ illness taking hold are incredibly disturbing to watch. Her labored breathing and screams of anguish are all-too relatable, as is Maria’s horror and guilt for not being able to help her sister. The ambiguous scene following her death might be the most haunting in the entire film, with some truly nightmarish moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film.
One of Bergman’s few films shot in colour, Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is utterly sumptuous. Reds and whites dominate the screen, and the red especially saturates the screen inbetween shots, as we see the events from each characters point of view. The sitting room that serves as the primary setting for the three sisters is absolutely drenched in red, and makes the location feel like a kind of protective cocoon for the characters that also brings with it a palpable sense of foreboding.
Combined with the framing and extreme close-ups, this all contributes to the claustrophobic, oppressive feeling that permeates the entire film, added to which are the sudden, urgent bursts of camera movement in scenes of heightened drama.
Cries And Whispers is a perfect combination of the style of Persona, the depth of human feeling of Wild Strawberries, and the disturbing elements of The Virgin Spring. This is unlikely to convert anyone who is unsure of Bergman, and might not be the best starting point, but it remains one of his most rewarding, thought provoking and visually striking films. It’s an emotionally devastating, beautifully constructed film, that probes the depths of family dynamics with a complexity that is still rarely attempted in contemporary cinema.
Cries And Whispers Opens on 1 April 2022 at BFI Southbank as part of the season ‘LIV ULLMANN: FACE TO FACE’, and will appear at selected cinemas UK-wide