bergman week #3: unending torment

All the kids are flocking to the portcullis of Palinode's Palace. They all wanna get in and read about the latest kooky-fresh Bergman film! Kanye West pretends his sales slump is the result of internet piracy, but he and everyone else knows that the kids have dumped hip-hop for Swedish despair. They wave their DVDs like they just don't care. And they don't: they're nihilists.

Tonight's film: Cries and Whispers (1972)

Anna and Agnes

At some point in the early '70s, after many successes and awards, Bergman must have decided that he hated his audience and wanted them to suffer. Incapable of making a bad film, he instead decided to make something that felt like you were being dragged across a sheet of barbed wire by your nostrils. He called that something Cries and Whispers, and after you've finished watching, you will never want to die - because it takes years, hurts like hell and keeps hurting even when you're a corpse.


Cries and Whispers is the White Stripes of cinema: everything in it is either red or white, with only occasional side trips into black. Three sisters and a maid live in a blood-red mansion in 19th century Sweden. Agnes is dying. She's been dying for years, but now she really means it. Played by Harriet Andersson (the way nubile maid from 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night), Agnes looks as fragile as an eggshell but still somehow beautiful. Her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thule) and Maria (Bergman regular Liv Ullmann) are looking after her in her last days. Anna (Kari Sylwan) is Agnes' maid, confidante and something like her surrogate daughter, although I would say that she's Agnes' last link to human warmth and the almost redemptive pleasure of touch.

blood red and ivory white

One thing you know for sure: she's not going to get any genuine human warmth from her sisters. Both are solicitous and caring, but their personalities place strict limits on their capacity for love. Maria's vapid and flirtatious behaviour conceals a self-centred and cruel nature. In one scene, a lover positions her in front of a mirror and assesses her character by the tiny lines in her face. He describes all her flaws, but she revels in the finely detailed attention he pays to her face, knowing that his disgust is the weaker obverse of his desire for her.

Maria watches herself in the mirror

Karin, paired with a despicable and bloodless husband, carries around a lifetime's worth of hatred and disgust. Every movement of her body and twitch of her masklike face betrays the nausea she feels over her own existence. The signature scene that displays her character relies on an unexpected and liberating act of self-mutilation. If you watch it with your children, you'll have a lot of difficult explaining to do.

Karin uptight

Like many of Bergman's films, the emotional torment of the characters eventually warps the story until grotesque, magical shapes emerge. Cries and Whispers, with its two-tone pallet of blood red and ivory white, its melodramatic screams and its protracted scenes of suffering, already bends into expressionism, but its climactic moments seem to come straight out of a European folk tale.

Karin relaxes with some blood

The best reason to see Cries and Whispers, as with most Bergman films, is the caliber of the performances by the women. Bergman has such a tight grip over the material that it sometimes seems overly formal or schematic, but the actors close the emotional gap that he deliberately introduces with his careful structures and isolated, disjointed scenes. Maybe you don`t give a rat`s ass about the scene transitions or flashbacks, but you can`t forget Harriet Andersson`s death throes, or the way Ingrid Thule runs her tongue stiffly over her lips as she cuts herself with a piece of broken glass. And you certainly can`t forget Liv Ullmann`s ability to shift from kindness to immense cruelty without even changing expression.

In conclusion, Cries and Whispers wins my Least Resembling Anchorman Award.