Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) is a 1972 Swedish film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullman. The film is all about pain, death, love, lust, hate, and self-loathing which create almost a claustrophobic feeling.
The story is set on a remote, but affluent manor house amidst the lavish grounds of a large secluded estate. The interior of the palatial building is meticulously decorated with red carpets and white statuary. The huge building, stripped from the distractions of the outside world, shows us a dying woman named Agnes and her sisters Maria and Karin, who have returned the family home to wait with her. Maria (Liv Ullman) is sensual, indecisive and shallow, cheats on her husband, and refuses to come to his aid when he stabs himself after learning of her infidelity, while Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is cold and hostile, hates her husband, uses a piece of a broken wine glass to literally mutilate her vagina, and then laughs triumphantly as she smears the blood on her face to upset her husband.
Apart from them, there is Anna, the deeply religious maid of Agnes, whose daughter died at an early age. She is the only soul in the house, who is capable to comfort the dying woman. When Agnes screams in extreme pain like a wounded animal, she comes to her, holds her head to her breasts, and tries to comfort her. However, three men also drift through, two husbands and a doctor, and there is a small role at the end of the film, the pastor. Nevertheless, this is essentially a story of women who are bound together by some unknown painful history.
Agnes’s slow, excruciating end is shattering, especially as she struggles in vain to reconcile the sisters, as her languid, convulsive frame strains each breath. Unable to reunite her sisters, her tortured soul can only grieve in incoherent gasps. After her death, the priest declares Agnes’ faith was stronger than his own. Toward the end of the film, there is a dreamlike sequence in which the dead Agnes seemingly returns to life for a short moment and asks her sisters one last time to hold her and comfort her with love. For a moment Karin, Maria and Agnes grow closer to each other. However, this is short-lived and when the two sisters realize that Agnes is actually dead, they reject her request. Karin remarks that such acts are morbid and disgusting. Then again, Anna comforts her, in a composition that mirrors the Pieta.
The last leg of the film is overwhelming in its content. Anna is called before the heartless sisters, they gave her a pittance, and told to leave the house. However, when they offered her a memento, the soft spoken maid raises her voice for the only time and refused to accept it. But later, from a drawer she takes a parcel and unwraps it to reveal Agnes’ diary, and reads the lines, where Agnes recalls a perfect day in the autumn, when her pain was not so bad, and the four women took up their parasols and walked in the garden. She expressed her feelings as happiness and that she cannot wish for anything better, that she feels profoundly grateful to her life, which gives her so much.
The film is characterized by flashbacks into the lives of the women of the house, beginning and ending them with full frames of deep red, then fading into or out of close ups where their faces are half-illuminated. These flashbacks capture moments of extreme emotion, as when Maria promiscuously seduces the doctor who has come to care for Anna’s child, or when Thulin mutilated her sexual organ and smeared her face with blood to drive away her husband. One flashback shows Maria asking Karin if they cannot be friends, and Karin rejects her venomously, only to allow her sister, moments later, to caress her face. And then, in a scene where we see them talking but do not hear anything, the two women pet each other like loving friends, while expressing what look like words of endearment.. When Karin later recalls this moment, Maria coldly rejects the memory. The last flashback is narrated through the diary of Agnes and shows her sisters descending upon the house clad in white, like angels.
In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Karin tells Maria how much she had always hated her, which is contrary to the scene where the two sisters pet each other or when all the four were walking in the garden with their parasols. It seems that some deep wound has scarred the family in the past. There must have been some extreme trauma, some truly horrific event or events that must have set forth the deluge of pain that rips throughout the entire story right up until the end. Probably, Agnes and Anna have escaped it, as they were living together, possibly as lovers, in the family home.
‘Cries and Whispers’ is considered by many as Bergman’s crown achievement. The idea of this film came to him in his house at the desolate Faro, where he lived by himself for sometime in a melancholy state of mind after a rather painful breakup. During those days, an image constantly haunted him and it was a very vivid and persistent image of a red room, complete with red walls, red furniture and four women sitting at the window in the room and dressed in the fashion of the beginning of the 20th century. He could not shake the image out of his mind and he knew that the only way to deal with it would be to start writing about the women – their whereabouts, their relationship, their lives and their fates. He also knew that should the movie be made of his writing, the dominating color of it would be red. Bergman discussed about his idea with his friend and long time collaborator Sven Nykvist, who spent many days creating the passionate haunting red world of “Cries and Whispers”. The title came to Bergman from one of the reviews on a Mozart’s Sonata, which was described as the sounds of Cries and Whispers.
The film was picturised by Sven Nykvist in a house where the wallpaper, rugs and curtains are all a deep blood red. The women are all dressed in old-fashioned floor-length white dresses or bedclothes, except after Agnes dies, when Karin and Maria change to black. Bergman maintained that the inside of human soul is membranous red. The color is associated with blood, death and spirituality. There are only a few respites. An opening shot looks out on the estate grounds, and there are brief sequences in the middle and at the end when the family stroll through the green park. These moments release us briefly from the horrible claustrophobic arena of extreme pain and death.
‘Cries and Whispers’ features three top heroines of Bergman – Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ulmann and Harriet Andersson. It could have been a Bergman fan’s dream come true, if Bibi Andersson was also included in the cast. When “Cries and Whispers” was released, it had an impact greater than any other Bergman film, except for The Seventh Seal and Persona. In an extraordinary achievement for a foreign film, it won the Academy nominations for best picture, director, costume design and cinematography. However, it was awarded for best cinematography.