1972 film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullmann.
This masterpiece has a strength and depth that I do not often see in films. Full of powerful female roles – the sisters, daughter, above all the maid – it is above all a series of single and slow shots, often with great attention to shadows and fog, foreground and background, which are the most arresting.
The three sisters gather in the family mansion because one is at the end of her life. Depicting her terrible suffering and their various responses to it, Cries and Whispers is concerned with all the important things in life: dying and death (of course, sadness and grieving and what happens afterwards), love, religion, sex, lack of human communication and connection. And betrayal, raising the questions whether we all do these sorts of things to each other, especially in our important relationships, and when we do, is it through a lack of awareness, a lack of kindness, self-interest…?
The style is all about the implied – snatches of conversations hinting at abuse in the past; subtle facial expressions; a view through the window into the garden at the right moment – nothing is thrust at me or over-explained, rather I am allowed to sit back in my cinema chair and draw my own conclusions, using my own intelligence and powers of observation, respected.
It is a measured Galliard (i) of a film, one meaningful step at a time, allowing me to see the detail and depth of a face or scene and almost always leaving certainty aside. After she dies and then calls her sisters, is she meant to be a ghost? When one refuses to attend the sick room, is this because she cannot bear the suffering, or is there a relationship issue we are not aware of? The pace allows some space to reflect while watching. I could not have slept for a second, although one man managed to snore throughout!
The cast is made up of women suffering and damaged in themselves, the most powerful being the maid – voluptous, clever, loving, agreeable, she has many of the attributes we expect from ‘the staff’ in these historical movies, but is a much rounder character than that. The exquisite tenderness in the removal of her top and cradling of the dying woman is something I will not forget quickly.
Meanwhile, the men take a back-seat, although they are implicated by what they do not say, what amuses them. At the edges of the main drama, their words or actions highlight the dysfunctional family situation – for example, as in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, it is the man who generously suggests a payment is made (here, to the maid after the death of her mistress) and his wife who refuses.
I am reminded of a more recent American film as I watch. To The Wonder (ii. 2013, directed by Terence Malick) must surely be paying homage to Cries and Whispers with its plaintive domestic scenes, lack of extant dialogue and slow self-conscious choreography on wide open plains.
What has stayed with me? The most explicit scene in which she accidentally knocks over a delicately decorated glass at the supper table. There is a suggestion that she expects her husband opposite to chastise her, but there is silence. She toys with a shard of glass and later takes it with her when she goes into her room where she desperately stabs it between her legs. Somehow she manages to walk into their shared room, lie back on the pillows and smear the blood over her face. Does her husband enjoy the result of her wound? Is the blood part of their love-making? She smiles and he moves to join her with no sign of horror on his face. The next morning she is moving around, apparently with no pain. Chilling.
Afterwards, I feel sad even morose, quiet and contemplative.
I watched this, on the spur of the moment, at one Vintage Sunday showing at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, May 2018.
i. A Galliard is an Elizabethan dance style.
ii. To The Wonder