Visions of Europe: Cries and Whispers LUMI Review

14 April 2022

Screening as part of QFT's Visions of Europe season, Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers is reviewed by LUMI young programmer Fionntán Macdonald.

Visions of Europe Cries and Whispers

“I have made a film for you…perhaps just for you”.

These were the words of master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman when promoting his perplexing and intriguing film Cries and Whispers (1972). Known as a commander of craft and profound emotion, Bergman is both a tremendous influence on many modern masters and a bastion of international cinema who brought his homeland of Sweden to the forefront of the filmmaking world. Yet despite its critical and commercial reception at the time of its release, Cries and Whispers remains a divisive inclusion in Bergman’s legendary filmography.

Simultaneously praised as a marvel of metaphor and derided as a pretentious art house film, the actual product falls somewhere in between the extremes as a thoughtful and aesthetically bold interrogation of hefty themes. Examining the female psyche, familial tensions and Bergman’s own tenuous relationship with religion and faith, this film is heavy and occasionally brutal but this has a profound and disquieting effect.

Described as “a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters”, Bergman has constructed a piece of cramped cinema that could easily have played out on a stage rather than the silver screen. In fact, the film would later be adapted for the stage and Bergman’s own background in the theatre seems to suggest that the narrow scope of the project was always intentional. Bergman supposedly envisioned Cries and Whispers as an adaptation of a disconcerting dream he had about four women, all clad in white, trapped in a room with red walls. Bergman would then approach his friend, longtime collaborator and legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist to ask if such a film would be possible to produce. A generational talent in his own field, Nykvist would obviously accept the challenge, leading Bergman to produce a screenplay (according to some sources) within two months.

Nykvist’s nonchalant agreement, however, does not truly represent the challenge this film would be to produce. In keeping with its later description, the film is drenched in crimson tones throughout its ninety-one minute runtime in a striking representation of how Bergman imagined the inside of the human soul. Red, however, was infamously hard to capture on traditional film stock and, much later than this production, would humble many of the most visually daring filmmakers. A ‘bleeding’ effect was unfortunately common when filming such ruby hues and it would take a transcendent talent such as Nykvist to execute Bergman’s very particular vision, which the film is all the better for.

There’s a tremendous artistry on display in Cries and Whispers which has provided essayists and analysts with plenty to sink their teeth into in the subsequent five decades and illuminates much of the arresting central performances in a film intentionally short on plot. The film truly is a small play about the death of Agnes, played by Harriet Andersson, whose two sisters and devoted housekeeper are forced to confront repressed and violent emotions in the wake of her illness. Composed as a series of vignettes, each woman in turn confronts an element of her own subconscious whether it be the fallout of an extramarital affair, the death of a loved one, or an inability to form connections even with those closest to them.

Two intertwined performances from frequent Bergman collaborators Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin anchor the film and Thulin in particular is captivating as the eldest sister Karin. Where Ullman artfully displays her character’s immaturity and naiveté, Thulin’s take on Karin is a slow burn descent into the fracturing psyche of a woman so repressed by emotional distance she can no longer even bear physical touch. It is when the veil of civility between these two slips in the third act that this film pivots into something special, blurring the lines between external and internal realities and metamorphosing into a more cerebral and psychological piece.

“It is very hard to say anything about Cries and Whispers,” Bergman would later comment, and while the five decade deluge of critiques and dissections seem to contradict this statement there is an odd truth to it. While far from an obtuse film, Cries and Whispers is a deeply cryptic look into the mind of a cinematic genius who expresses his ideas with great artistry but occasionally inaccessible inventiveness. This film is simultaneously beautiful and brutal, enlightening and confounding, enveloping and off-putting with a dichotomy that invites further analysis.

Bergman certainly did not make a film for everyone, but may have made one just for you.

- written by LUMI programmer Fionntán Macdonald