“Cries and Whispers” (1973 Movie)

is an Ingmar Bergman classic and his first significant film in color, using red for interior rooms, scenes with blood, and transitions between scenes. Bergman explained that, for him, red is associated with inner life including heart and soul; but at the same time, he parallels that usage with exterior physicality such as in a suicide attempt, a mutilation scene, and a broken glass of wine scene.

Anna is the loyal maid of three aristocratic sisters living in a country house. She is closest to Agnes, the simplest and nicest of the three women, who is dying a painful cancer-death. Maria (played by Liv Ullmann) is the beautiful sister who seeks intimacy and closeness, especially with her remaining sister Karin who is terrified of touch and intimacy, and remains an island unto herself.

Maria has an affair with a cynical doctor who later rejects her advances; he is a cold delineator of character and has understood that Maria has flaws, though she is beautiful and seductive. Maria’s husband senses immediately that he has been cuckolded and tries to kill himself; in contrast, her response is one of coldness which reflects her dead mother and which belies her quest for intimacy.

Karin is more alienated and straightforwardly defective and rejects intimacy to the point that she damages herself dramatically rather than sleep with her cool, insipid husband.

Anna is more intimate than anyone else and comforts the dying Agnes like a mother does her a child, even lying semi-naked with her. What the sisters and family plan for Anna after Agnes’s passing reveals the essential defectiveness of the remaining two sisters and their husbands. So, Anna, like Agnes in her dying, reveals the characters of the two hypocritical sisters.

Karin (to Maria): “Do you realize I hate you?” is the main line in the film.

Bergman dissects the relationships like a skilled surgeon and much of the movie is focused on character coldness, their responses, and touch, ultimately, as a measure of relative humanity. For Bergman, touch is the sacred measure of true closeness in most of his films. The extended scene of touching with quiet instrumental music and without words or talk is the significant core scene of Cries and Whispers.

And it is significant (and appropriate) also that it is the dead sister who has the last word/s in this powerful tale of four women living painful, limited lives in a claustrophobic (prison-)house.

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