We’re in late 19th century Sweden and in Anton Chekov veering into August Strindberg or Edvard Munch territory. And we are on steroids.
Unhappily married sisters Maria (Ullmann) and Karin (Thulin) return to the family estate to console their dying sibling Agnes (Andersson). Maria and Karin are upper middle class, so leave most of the care work to Anna (Sylwan), the housemaid.
As Agnes dies painfully onscreen, flashbacks show the extent to which the three sisters and the maid are in fucked-up and delusional states.
The house is awash in intense outbursts of previously repressed emotions, focused on in screen-filling close-ups of faces. Karin’s enormous-eyed face takes this trope to extremes. In fact, Karin’s behaviour throughout the film is utterly hysterical – I mean that in the way one of those nice late-19th century doctors wielding a clinical vibrator would mean it – and moves the film in a genre direction which becomes clearer as the years pass.
The household is also awash in the colour red, with the characters and the furniture seeming to free float in an intense scarlet hue, thanks to Sven Nykvist’s Oscar-winning cinematography.
On top of the red and the anguished close ups, there are cries and whispers on the soundtrack and some supremely (comically?) smug men with vitriolic opinions. For example, when Maria’s husband suggests allowing Anna to freely choose one of Agnes’ possessions for a keepsake, Karin’s mummified ratface of a husband spits out “I despise such displays of spontaneity!.”
Which is a great line and one I will be using in the future.
Dark caricatures suggest dark comedy, just as hyper-intense emotions flip over into a suggestion of grand guignol and satire. I’ve never seen Cries and Whispers on the big screen before and it was an eye opener. I had not questioned the film’s seriousness or sincerity previously.
While Agnes’ death throes were still pretty harrowing, the film looks very “performed” and actorly. It isn’t just the theatrical sets – they feel like the starting point for the film, the backdrop for the intense close ups.
Not only are there stereotypical, almost comical, behaviours on display; there is also a cathartic ending that, on this viewing, looked problematic. Agnes’ narration at the end is as close as the film gets to “feelgood”; but her happiness there seems founded on ignoring her sisters’ failings as human beings. Perhaps Bergman means that, yes, life is so shit that we really only have the consolation of our delusions.
It is testament to the intensity of this film that it summons up such a range of ideas and feelings.
Cries and Whispers is an intense and disturbing film that everyone should see on the big screen. I think that fans of horror and weird, extreme cinema will find lots to appreciate here.
This restored but surprisingly soft-focus Cries and Whispers is released as part of the BFI’s Liv Ullmann season.