Ingmar Bergman’s latest film Cries and Whispers has been acclaimed wherever it has been released. For many critics it is quite simply Bergman’s masterpiece, one of the most remarkable films ever made. This acclaim has been accompanied by violent controversy over his most enigmatic work since Persona. In New York, Gay Liberation responded to it with packed houses and bursts of applause. Lesbianism can well be found in Cries and Whispers, but it is only one aspect in a whole world of female relationships that Bergman has chosen to explore.
The film is mysterious, a haunting and desperate evocation of life and death presided over by four women. Critics have been questioning its curiously Victorian quality, and why Pickwick Papers should be read as Agnes dies. The confusion extends to accounts of what is actually taking place in the film. Ingmar Bergman in his initial draft (there have been many changes in the course of production) has not clarified the problem of interpretation. ‘What it most resembles’, he wrote, ‘is a dark, flowing stream—faces, movements, voices, gestures, exclamations, light and shade, moods, dreams. Nothing fixed, nothing really tangible other than for a moment, and then only an illusory moment. A dream, a longing, or perhaps an expectation. A fear in which that to be feared is never put into words’ [The New Yorker, 21 October, 1972, p. 38). Having written this, Bergman then produced one of his most static films, a series of theatrical tableaux in gaslit rooms, with a constant emphasis on close-up and abrupt change of scene. Cries and Whispers is a statement affirming the paradox between vision and reality. Frequently the dialogue is stilted, establishing another order of ambiguity within the filmed image. What can only be rationally defined as memory and dream are given the same quality of temporal reality by the camera. Time, the sequential order of events, is the first power destroyed in the film.
Cries and Whispers begins to the insistent beat of a clock sounding behind the dreaming silence of a misty garden. The light is vague and diffused, colour without definition, shapes without distinct form. Soon the mechanical measure of time becomes more emphatic as one clock-face after another dominates the screen. Then abruptly they are silenced by the broken, gasping breath of Agnes. Her face drawn tight with pain fills the screen. Brilliant light seems to explode from the white sheets and the red coverlet. Each scene is dominated by either red, black or white—the primordial shades. Bergman described how ever since his childhood he had visualized the soul ‘as a moist membrane in shades of red’. Agnes, played by Harriet Andersson, wakes from sleep to pain, struggles from her bed and draws the window-blind. For one exquisite moment park and lake are seen in the dawn. But this is not the world of the dying. The room in which Agnes lives and dies is red, muffled and silent. Her sister Maria (Liv Ullmann), sleeps soundly in the next room, her red hair spread out around her. Agnes opens her diary and records the first words of the film, ‘It is early Monday morning and I’m in pain’. There is to be no shrinking from the process of death, no turning away from physical agony as cancer consumes her body.
Cries and Whispers is a deathwatch, and depicts the tormented relationship this creates between three sisters, Agnes, Maria and Karin (Ingrid Thulin). Maria is the embodiment of their mother who haunts their thoughts with memories of love bestowed and rejected. There is no father in this world of women, this red womb that encloses the world. Indeed, there have been few films in which women are portrayed more sympathetically, and men as such uncouth intruders into the secret rites of women. Agnes has no memories of her father. What she recalls most vividly is Maria and her mother together, laughing and giggling like lovers. But when Agnes timidly approached her mother and touched her cheek, she found the response of sorrow, not love. It is the servant Anna (Kari Sylwan) who has replaced the mother in Agnes’ life, and in her arms Agnes has found a love that will endure beyond death. When the doctor presses his hand against her womb to feel the cancer’s growth, Agnes takes his hand between hers and weeps. This is one expression of love she will never know; the only emotions that she reads in the doctor’s eyes are compassion and pity. Having lost her own daughter, Anna finds the child again in Agnes. There is only one love in Cries and Whispers that is devoid of cruelty and pain, and that is the affection between women. When two women recreate the role of mother and child they touch the source of life itself.
The doctor leaves Agnes and sees Maria waiting by the door. She tempts him like the figure of lust in a mediaeval morality—he touches her breast, she bites his finger and he kisses her. Then in horror he remembers the past and flees from her. Memory comes to Maria in the coolly dispassionate voice of the narrator of a documentary. Maria made love to the doctor on the night that Anna’s child died, and the following morning, her husband, suspecting her infidelity, stabbed himself. Maria’s love will always cause pain to others, just as the love she shared with her mother was a source of anguish to her sisters. Maria is recalled to the moment when her husband fell from his study chair, a paper-knife in his chest. There is no lingering over Joakim’s attempted suicide—like Karin’s husband, he serves only to define the passions of love between Anna and the three sisters.
If Maria is lust then Karin is the negation and suppression of sexuality. She wears black and calculates the family accounts with a scratching pen. There is no profit in her life, only loss. As Agnes’ torment grows more acute (her body twisted by grotesque spasms, her cries of pain more anguished) the sisters and Anna draw closer to her. The clocks continue ticking, the wind beats against the windows, as Agnes shrieks above them. In the night Anna climbs into the bed, uncovers her breast, and Agnes finds rest against it like a troubled child. She is rocked from pain into sleep as Anna murmurs loving whispers. The following morning the sisters bathe her and dress her in a clean gown. The scene is theatrical and sacramental as Agnes looks from one to the other, leaning against their bodies, feeling their warmth as she grows colder. Then Maria begins to read to her, chapter thirty-five of Pickwick Papers. Just as Mr Pickwick declares his intention not to pay a penny of the damages against him, Agnes is again wracked with pain. This time her agony is unbearable and she screams, ‘Can’t someone help me?’ Half upright, she looks towards the window, the silent park and the world beyond it, and dies.
Swiftly Anna and the sisters place Agnes’ hands together; then moving rhythmically as though they have long rehearsed this moment, straighten her gown and draw up the red blanket. The scenes throughout the film dissolve in a wash of red as though blood is not simply life but memory as well. The pastor arrives to pray beside the death-bed and comfort the bereaved. But his message is less one of hope than of desolation and despair. It is the litany of a nihilist masquerading behind a cross and a twisted smile. The sisters, Anna, and two old women who have come to lay out the body, stand in attitudes of prayer. Agnes is robed like a child, with a small bunch of primroses in her hand and a frilled bonnet covering her head. Throughout the film there is the constant reference to birth and death, with Bergman giving a new and macabre interpretation to an old theme.
Memory returns to Karin with the same impartial, male voice that jarred Maria as she flirted with the doctor. Agnes knew and understood the source of Karin’s guilt and despair. It was the mother who now lives again as Maria. In her diary Agnes had recorded, ‘Mother was nearly always impatient, mostly with Karin. I was sickly and puny as a child, but Karin was always being scolded, because Mother thought she was so clumsy and unintelligent.’ Now Karin sees herself at the dinner-table with Frederik, her husband, on a previous visit to the house. Anna serves them quietly as though aware of the icy hatred between them. She spills the wine, breaking the glass, but he does not notice. ‘It is all a tissue of lies’, Karin whispers as she prepares to be undressed by Anna, her hand continually straying to the sliver of glass she has carried with her from the dinner-table. The intercourse Karin endures with her husband is an exercise in disgust and loathing—all love is a tissue of lies. Anna looks at her with admiration as she undresses her, and Karin slaps her face. Confronted with Anna’s hurt bewilderment, she cries ‘Forgive me!’, but Anna shakes her head. There is no forgiveness for the rejection of love. Like a bride, dressed in white, Karin takes the sliver of glass and, with legs apart, thrusts it deep into her vagina. Then in an orgasm of pain, she leans forward as though an act of masturbation has reached climax. Slowly she walks towards the canopied bed, her husband watching her with an aroused desire that changes to confusion as she lies back against the pillows, her expression smiling and relaxed. When he approaches her she parts her legs and blood spills forth. Karin dabbles her fingers in the blood and smears it across her mouth, tasting it and smiling. For Maria, love creates anguish for others; for Karin, love is the destruction of her body and a prelude to suicide.
Maria implores Karin not to reject her, to accept her love for Agnes’ sake. Plaintively she wails like a child, ‘I can’t stand distance and silence’, but Karin starts back from her outstretched hand. They open Agnes’ diary and read that grace has entered her life with the gift of human friendship, the love she has shared with Anna. The pastor’s prayer begins to be answered as the sisters talk more rapidly, confessing to each other in whispers, hands fluttering across their faces, whispers and kisses mingled together. This is one test of love, but the most poignant is yet to come—the trial of love in which the dead judge the living.
Anna wakes from dreaming sleep to hear sobbing in the quiet house. She hurries toward Agnes’ room. Karin and Maria are transfixed against the wall outside the door; they are like rigid figures of death, their eyes not flickering as Anna moves her hand across their faces. It is as though the living are dead and cannot speak, while speech is given to the dead. Anna opens the door and Agnes cries that she cannot sleep, that she cannot rest until she has spoken to her sisters. In horror Anna whispers that ‘It’s only a dream’, to which Agnes replies that it is ‘a dream for you but not for me’. The decaying body of Agnes calls for Karin who slowly walks to the foot of the bed. Agnes begs for love, asks her to take her hands and warm them, but Karin refuses. She tells Agnes that she is a corpse, that she is already beginning to rot, that she has never loved her. Agnes weeps and Karin stumbles from the room. Maria, summoned by Anna, approaches Agnes with tenderness, she reminds her of the times when they were children, she takes her hands in her own, but suddenly Agnes winds her arms around Maria’s neck and pulls her face down to kiss her. In hysteria, Maria drags herself free, Agnes’ body still clinging to her. Pushing it from her Maria runs screaming through the house and Anna is left to comfort Agnes. Gently she lifts the body from the floor, takes the corpse in her arms, bares her breast and places Agnes’ head against it. Then she rocks Agnes to death, to the death that is sleep, a sleep without pain.
At last Agnes is truly dead and the sisters confront each other across the dinner table. Now Karin reveals her detestation of Maria’s childish, flirting ways, her constant promiscuity. In the trial of death she found courage to tell Agnes she could not love her, now she tells Maria that she hates her. All Karin desires is death; but life continues after the funeral, with the husbands sitting decorously beside their mourning wives and discussing what should be done with Anna. Anna is paid off with a few banknotes by Joakim, and the sisters part coldly, as strangers. Anna is left to choose a memento from Agnes’ possessions. She takes the diary and carries it slowly to her room. Agnes speaks from the past, living now in a moment of perfect happiness. The three sisters sit in a swing, laughing, chattering together like children as Anna rocks them to and fro. There are no cries, no whispers as death becomes one memory of sunlight and love in a tranquil garden.
The central image of Cries and Whispers, a girl dying with her sisters and a servant at the bedside, had troubled Bergman for years. But the problem of presentation seemed insuperable. In contemporary art and literature the whole subject of death seems tolerable only if drowned in sentimentality or concealed in complex euphemisms. In his first draft Bergman expressed this doubt: ‘It is difficult nowadays to depict suffering and death in words or pictures. Simulated death or make-believe suffering is apt to become indecent, obscene.’ So, deliberately, he set his film in the second half of the nineteenth century, a period that regarded death with obsessive and passionate concern. He accentuated this by punctuating the film with constant reference to Dickens—the symbolism of the clocks and the dying girl, reminiscent of the first chapter of Dombey and Son, the cannibalistic quality of eating (in the depiction of Frederik and the doctor) like Pumblechook presiding over the metaphorical dismemberment of Pip in Great Expectations. The Dickensian references give the film distance and permit us to endure the ritual of death. Then Bergman takes us one step further to the world beyond death—to a despairing acceptance of death as sleep, but a sleep that can mercifully dream of love.
Dr Coral Lansbury, author of Arcady in Australia, was professor of English at Rosemont College, Pennsylvania.