Ingmar Bergman is the type of director whose films have a language of their own. An autobiographical filmmaker, he injects his stories with his own personal explorations of love, life, religion, pain, and hope. Describing much of his work deserved the coining of a term - Bergmanesque - as a means of exploring the filmmaker’s bleak psychological chronicles of people living in a world that God has abandoned.
Roger Ebert referred to Cries and Whispers (1973) as a film that “envelops us in a tomb of dread, pain and hate, and to counter these powerful feelings it summons selfless love. It is, I think, Ingmar Bergman’s way of treating his own self-disgust, and his envy of those who have faith… This is a monstrous family.”
Bergman’s body of work consistently explores the human condition. His female characters are usually more in tune with their sexuality than males, and are aware of that fact. In 1964, he told Playboy, “the manifestation of sex is very important, and particularly to me, for above all, I don't want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding them. There is much in common between a beautiful summer morning and the sexual act; but I feel I've found the cinematic means of expressing only the first, and not the other, as yet. What interests me more, however, is the interior anatomy of love.”
Nine years later, Bergman created Cries and Whispers. With the assistance of regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the film is a staggeringly beautiful portrait of the female psyche, faith, sex, and redemption. The focus of the narrative is its subjects’ emotional and physical pain, of which they are each in good supply. Set in a 19th-century manor, the story tells of four women: Agnes (Harriet Andersson), Karin (Ingrid Thulin), Maria (Liv Ullmann), and Anna (Kari Sylwan). Agnes owns the house and is on her deathbed; young and virginal, soon to expire from an illness of the womb. Anna is her maid and caretaker (and possibly lover) who tends to Agnes’ every need, and cares for her greatly. The other two are Agnes’ sisters, both unhappily married and who despise one another. Through the film’s nonlinear story, we witness the sisters simultaneously dread and anticipate Agnes’ death, while experiencing flashbacks that highlight the hideous nature of the women’s pasts, and dream sequences that speak to the same. The glimpses we receive are brief and terrible, always focused on pain and suffering (as it broadly relates to sex and relationships) and the women’s various means of coping.
The flashbacks and illusions reveal much: Karin is so unhappy with her much-older husband that she mutilates her genitals with a shard of broken glass to repel him. Maria is unfaithful to her husband, spending the night with a doctor and leaving her husband to bleed when he attempts to kill himself in response. He is such an unsatisfactory lover that Maria feels nothing for him. Karin hates Maria, Karin hates Agnes, and Anna, whose child died at a young age and whose greatest partner in life is on her deathbed, is pitted between the sisters and Agnes’ death.
Quite obviously, Cries and Whispers is a film about women, and openly explores the gender politics it depicts. All of the film’s males are weak. Maria and Karin’s husbands both show zero evidence that they understand the emotional requirements of their wives, and make no attempt to try. Their scenes are filled with a boredom and rage that shoots from the women’s eyes like knives. The film’s other males, Agnes’ doctor and priest, are equally useless in providing her comfort. The doctor is unavailable when Agnes is closest to death and in the most agony, and the priest’s eulogy affirms his lack of faith, assessing that Agnes was a more devout believer than he, a man of the cloth. These men are all emotionally impotent.
The women are not much better. In addition to the aforementioned self-mutilation and infidelity, the women (save for Anna) are overtly cruel as people. They are to be seen as monsters, and easily so.
Agnes’ disease is related to her anatomy; that which makes her a woman. Though she is the sole virginal picture in the film, she is still being destroyed by something sexual in nature. Anna is the only character the film defines as having been a mother, though her child was lost to an unknown fate. This knowledge installs her as the maternal figure within the picture, caring for Agnes through her illness -- though like her own child, loses Agnes as well.
Each of the women in Cries and Whispers are uniquely presented in wardrobe and cinematography. The subjective flashbacks display scenes that assist our understanding of their emotions, but come across as somewhat fantastic or dreamlike. Once one realizes that other shots within the film are of a dreamlike quality, it calls into question the validity of everything we’ve seen that doesn’t happen in the present, as though the material may be shaded by the emotional and sexual torment of its subjects. That said, the film never questions itself. The psyche of its characters is influenced as much by the literal as the figurative, so all is equal.
The way the women project their sexualities is both thematic and defining of their personalities. Maria uses her luscious cleavage as a beckoning -- it causes lust in the weak male doctor, and rage in the shuttered Karin. Contrast Maria with Anna, whose physical appearance in itself is to be pitted against the three women of the family, and whose breasts frequently emerge not for sexual incitement, but as a source of comfort for Agnes. Maria’s sassy sexuality is set against Anna’s maternal crassness. Sexual body parts get Maria what she wants, and Anna uses hers for comfort and servitude.
Agnes’ uterine pain is the narrative glue that binds the story. Her suffering is intense and profound, difficult to watch. It is to be contrasted with the slow and torturous suffering of Karin and Maria through their unrewarding lives with their husbands. Their emotional damage is as extreme as Agnes’ physical damage, but Karin and Maria are stuck surviving their torment. Karin’s decision to mutilate her own sex organs to avoid being intimate with her aging husband is an extremely depressing picture of pain, and is Bergman’s overt and profound way of letting us know these women are incapable of finding any relief from the suffering that ails them. The only one who will is Agnes, though even in death, the eulogy by her priest reflects Bergman’s regular thematic notes.