Directed by: Igmar Bergman
Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, Harriet Anderson, Kari Sylwan
There is not much story to Cries and Whispers. A young woman is dying and her two sisters and a faithful servant are waiting out her final days with her. Bergman uses her death to showcase raw and pure human emotion. While I couldn’t connect with Cries and Whispers emotionally it is thought provoking and visually as well as aurally stunning. It’s a textbook example of auteur theory with visuals and audio that come across as more machined than filmed.
The film starts with the white text of the credits on a red background. The background is the color of blood fresh from the cut before the oxygen in the air starts to darken it. Somewhere in the extras it was mentioned that it is supposed to be the color of the womb or the color you see when you close your eyes on a bright light. I don’t know about that but it is striking and somehow fills you with a sense of foreboding. I little red is nice but that much red is, well disturbing. After the credits you are treated to some perfectly composed images of a tree filled garden with crepuscular rays peeking around the trunks and a soft mist blowing giving just a hint of movement. This turns in to a visual essay of clocks with the camera slowly panning over the cherubic details and the weathered faces of old windup mantle clocks. The soundtrack is not only the ticking and occasional chime of the clocks but you can actually hear the gear train of the movements slowly turning.
Eventually the screen is filled with more red. This time it’s the walls and carpets and drapes. The red is only broken by the white of the bedclothes and the dressing gowns of the room’s occupants. This is where we get introduced to the subjects of the film. I’m not even going to try to sort them out into protagonists and antagonists it’s just not that kind of movie. So the subjects are Agnes, played by Harriet Anderson, she is dying and likely only has a few days left to live, with her are her sisters, Maria and Karin, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin respectively. Taking care of them all, but mostly Agnes, is the servant Anna played by Kari Sylwan.
Like I mentioned earlier Cries and Whispers comes across as a textbook example of auteur theory. The composition and movement in every shot is executed with the precision of a Swiss watch. The story is stripped to its essentials and emotion is distilled down to its pure essence. There is pain, fear, disgust, despair, even happiness but there is no shading or bleed over. They are not mixed in any way, there are no overtones or harmonics. It’s like looking at a painting done only in primary colors or listening to a tune consisting of pure sine waves. You can marvel at the technical virtuosity. Even be intellectually stimulated by the arguments presented but I found it impossible to get emotionally engaged in the story or the characters.
The story itself is a triptych with Agne’s death the subject. While there is a beginning and an ending the meat of the movie is three vignettes; one for each of the two sisters and one for Anna. You get the tiniest amount of setup for each character and then Bergman shows you how they cope with Agnes dying and ultimate death. I’ll be frank and admit that there are layers of symbolism here that are going entirely over my head. I’m sure that this is a movie that I could watch over and over and still find little nuances I had missed. And I don’t think I would mind. This is one of those films you cold take any frame and blow it up and hang it on the wall. Light and color are maybe the most important characters in the film. Bergman spent as much effort in how the movie sounds as well. You can hear clothes rustling, people breathing, the cold wind howling and the tick tock of the clock measuring out the life you have left. It heightens your sense of unease and when it tones down you immediately relax. For all of that I don’t think I will ever care about what is actually happening.
Criterion has done a fantastic job with this release. This video comes from a new 2K transfer made from the original 35mm negative and retains the original 1.66:1 aspect ration. It looks gorgeous. I never noticed any blemishes, scratches or dirt from the transfer or any evidence of digital artifacts. Color is a character in the film and the restorers have paid close attention to making sure it is balanced between all of the scenes and the critical fade to reds are spot on. This is probably the best the film has appeared since its debut in 1972.
The audio has been left in the original monaural but is presented uncompressed. Its obvious watching and listening to the film that sound was just as important to Bergman as image. There is a little bit of music for the flashbacks for the rest of the film the sound track is the sound or lack of sound of a large nearly empty house before radio and television and it’s full of creaking floorboards, rustling clothes and the tick tock of clocks. Occasionally someone will say something. This all comes through cleanly and clearly. I actually think a surround sound track of this movie would scare the willies out of me. There is an English track as well as the original Swedish along with English subtitles. The English track is okay but it doesn’t have the sparkle of the Swedish.
The Extras and Bonus Features
This edition of Cries and Whispers is not overflowing with goodies but it’s nailed the essentials. The disc comes packaged in a standard non-tinted Blu-Ray case and has simple but striking artwork. The insert is double sided, the interior showing the iconic final image of the film that ended up on a Swedish stamp. There is also included a little booklet with an essay by film scholar Emma Wilson that includes some more images from the film and some of the credits. It also has some notes on the video and audio restoration done for this release. There is the nearly mandatory trailer and an Interview with Bergman from 2001 and several interviews and video essays.