Sunday, 10 May 2015

CRIES AND WHISPERS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Cancer, Bergman Style, on Criterion BD


Cries and Whispers (1972)
Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan,
Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers is enclosed in a thick, deep red membrane; every frame splashed with a kind of sickeningly putrid menstrual blood which has been expunged from some horrific, barren place of hatred and regret, enveloping the pain of its three sisters Agnes (Harriet Andersson), Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), never allowing the force of healing and relief to take over completely and allow the characters a greater sense of love and fulfillment.

The film's greatness cannot be denied. It has haunted me for 40+ years and at several points throughout my life, it's been there for me: casting shadows of darkness, revealing depths of despair, exuding feelings of longing and generously displaying its stunning cinematic virtuosity. Much like an old friend who remains just around the corner, or rather, not unlike a monkey upun our collective backs, the film exists to remind us how important it is to grasp whatever sliver-like shards of joy life affords us, lest we become wholly consumed by the sheer misery of it all.

At the film's centre is Anna (Kari Sylwan). She is the heart pumping with lifeblood as opposed to the putrescence of anguish, the expulsion of toxic poison, lying in wait to envelope life and upon discovering there's nothing there, it gushes and sticks to those bereft of kindness and caring.

Agnes has cancer. She's dying. Karin and Maria have come to the family's country estate to preside over the death-watch. Anna is the plump domestic who runs the household and takes care of Agnes. Bergman takes us through the stages of the final agony by deftly providing us with a series of flashbacks which inform the current situation. Childhood for the sisters was sheer joy. They were very close. Their mother (also played by Liv Ullman) is loving, but often seems distracted, if not distant. At one point we see her infused with such utter, quiet sorrow that it seems to inform everything in the film. We learn that Agnes was always the odd, ugly duckling and that she remained unmarried and alone, save for the loyal Anna (whose own child died tragically many years earlier, but to whose picture she examines everyday and prays to with deep devotion).

Karin married a petty diplomat. In spite of wealth and travel, she hates him - so much so, that one night, smelling (no doubt) of the greasy, rancid-looking fish he wolfed down over supper, her husband awaits Karin's conjugal visit, and she privately masturbates with a shard of crystal from a broken wine glass, only to present him with the sight of the blood gushing from between her legs and smearing it all over her almost cruelly lascivious face.

Maria, the most frivolous of the three sisters also married into wealth - a husband with such a weak, spineless demeanour that he seems born to be a cuckold and to be cuckolded. She does what she must and cuckolds him, but unlike his dalliances away from the conjugal bed, she chooses to soil it within their home. Even more sickening is that her primary love interest is the creepy local doctor (Erland Josephson) who coldly presides over Agnes's final days.

Bergman paints a portrait of a family united by blood, but not much else. Whatever love they had for each other in childhood has turned to stone. At one point, Karin lets it all spill out to Maria, who responds blankly to these words tinged with bile:

"Do you realize I hate you and how foolish I find your insipid smile and your idiotic flirtatiousness? How have I managed to tolerate you so long and not say anything? I know of what you're made - with your empty caresses and your false laughter. Can you conceive how anyone can live with so much hate as has been my burden? There's no relief, no charity, no help! There is nothing. Do you understand? Nothing can escape me for I see all!"

Poor Agnes desperately wants her sisters to be with her and touch her in these final hours, but more often than not, they sit immobile in the gorgeous parlour outside her room. What Karin confesses to a Maria who does not bother to challenge the horrendous assertions is enough to prove that the desperate desires of Agnes will not be fulfilled. She'll go to her grave never feeling the love of her siblings.

Finally, it's left to Anna to hold Agnes close to her warm, inviting, motherly bosom. During one unbelievably creepy and nightmarish sequence, after Agnes's final internal combustion of pain followed by her last gurgling croaks of life, she is dead, yet her consciousness remains in her sick room. She asks for her sisters to visit one by one to assist in her spiritual passage to the other side. Here they fail miserably and again, it is up to the servant Anna to offer this solace.

Even Bergman at his most brilliant and despairing, never made a movie like this. Its setting is the most exquisitely furnished and adorned home, yet everything feels untouched, unloved. It's stifling and claustrophobic. The physical beauty of the surroundings are as empty as the hearts of Karin and Maria - both of whom express hatred for each other. Even when they briefly reconcile, it is short-lived.


The pain, the savagery of the cancer ripping the insides of Agnes apart is unrelenting. Bergman lavishes his camera over every detail, the slow movements of Agnes, the rigour she must employ to do the simplest of things like reaching for a glass of water, walking to a window to look at the rays of sun, sitting at a desk to write her memoirs, every stroke of the pen sending jolts of pain into her body and then, in words on the page, describing the pain as well.

Sven Nykvist's cinematography and longtime collaboration with Bergman reaches a pinnacle that could never be matched. We never see outside the windows, only the natural light pouring through them upon the beautiful, but cold and stately physical interior consume our perspective. Worst of all, when the lens attempts to caress the faces of its characters, especially Karin and Maria, all we get is the pain, hatred and regret, ozing from their pores of skin, which we can see in vivid detail.

Some movies are just inextricably linked to your being. Cries and Whispers is such a picture for me. I first saw it at a very young age with my mother. Her sister and my beloved aunt, had experienced a similar death from cancer. The pain we both felt was acute and yet, I remember my mother being affected, not just viscerally, but by Bergman's artistry and the sheer genius of the acting. I lived with the film through repeated viewings over the course of 40+ years. My most recent viewings came during my mother's year-long struggle with stomach cancer and in the weeks after her pain-wracked final weeks and, ultimately, death, I had to see the film even more.

It touches and reminds you of life's fragility and ultimately, the importance of love and forgiveness. In the movie's final moments, we hear a diary entry from Agnes as Bergman takes us out of the dank, sarcophagus-like atmosphere of the blood-red interiors and upon the sumptuous, rolling green lawns of the estate. All three sisters, dressed in white and carrying frilly parasols, gently walk the grounds with the loyal Anna accompanying them. They rush to an old swing, so special in their childhood. They take seats as Anna swings them back and forth. The final words of the film (in a heartfelt homage to Eugene O'Neill's immortal play of familial suffering, acrimony and grief, Long Day's Journey Into Night) have Agnes revealing the following:

"All my aches and pains were gone. The people I am most fond of in all the world were with me. I could hear their chatting around me. I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, "Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much."

We sit, in stunned silence, tears pouring from our eyes, our thoughts turning to all those we've loved and continue to love and we are, ourselves, profoundly grateful for everything in life, which has indeed given us so much - and especially, Ingmar Bergman's hallowed gift us, Cries and Whispers.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars

Cries and Whispers is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. It features a wealth of glories for us to be grateful for, including a 2K digital restoration, an introduction by Bergman, shot in 2001, an all-new interview with Harriet Andersson, conducted by Peter Cowie, a video essay by filmmaker :: kogonada, behind-the-scenes footage with Cowie's commentary, a one-hour-long documentary from 2000 entitled Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson (2000), exquisite new translation of the dialogue in English for the subtitles, an optional English-dubbed soundtrack (which helps those who don't speak Swedish to watch repeatedly and concentrate on the visual, an essay by film scholar Emma Wilson in the accompanying booklet and a stunning new cover design by by Sarah Habibi ace Criterion artist Sarah Habibi.