While the supposed heaviness of Bergman’s filmography is frequently exaggerated (or am I the only one who finds The Seventh Seal with its snarky Death entertaining, even if the film undoubtedly isn’t a laugh riot beginning to end?), it is certainly true that many of his films deal with heavy themes. Mortality in the abstract is a frequent motif, but so is death in the very concrete. And death in Bergman’s films may never have been as harrowing as in his 1972 film Cries and Whispers, the first half of which depicts the suffering and agony of Agnes, one of its four main characters.
Agnes is played by Harriet Andersson, one of Bergman’s frequent collaborators, and while her performance is utterly compelling, if not always easy to watch (and hear, especially), it is her work in other films by the director that makes the performance even more striking. Certainly, Andersson delivered a superb turn as a tortured schizophrenic in Through a Glass Darkly, but it is performances such as Monika in Summer with Monika that come to mind, or a number of other, smaller parts (for instance in Smiles of a Summer Night and Dreams) where Andersson is girlish and flirtatious and her youthful energy is infectious (if also sometimes annoying – she often plays parts that seem quintessentially teenaged).
In Cries and Whispers, that Harriet Andersson is nowhere to be seen. Even before I knew what the film was about, Andersson’s first appearance in the film left no doubt whatsoever – Agnes is dying. And, honestly, it may be for the best: whatever time Agnes has left, it will not be good. And that palpable sense of death is felt throughout the house, infecting everyone in it – namely the older sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), and the servant Anna (Kari Sylwan). (I wonder what it was like for Sylwan to be the fourth lead in a film whose other three main characters are all played by Bergman’s grandes dames.)
While death feels entirely real and concrete in Cries and Whispers, the film nonetheless has elements that feel more dreamlike, even if they veer into the nightmarish at times – which fits the production design whose reliance on the colour red would put some giallo films to shame. There is a permeability between the world of the living, of the dead and of memory that doesn’t diminish the physical enormity of Agnes’ suffering, but it keeps the film from becoming miserablist. Childhood and the past aren’t prettified, they aren’t an ideal that everyone strives to reclaim, but Cries and Whispers assumes a non-linear quality in which the suffering of the present – which isn’t just limited to Agnes’ physical agony – co-exists with remembered moments of happiness.
Which all sounds overly intellectualised, but there is a distinct difference for me between this film and others in Bergman’s filmography, and that difference lies in the protagonists. There are only a handful of men that feature in Cries and Whispers: the doctor David (Erland Josephson) that Maria had an affair with, the priest Isak (Anders Ek), and Maria and Karin’s husbands, but there is little of the pontification on the overarching themes of the film that only a male Bergman protagonist is capable of. There aren’t any Bergman stand-ins that mansplain to the women in the film the meaning of life and death, the death of God and the meaninglessness of existence, albeit in archly self-deprecating ways. The film’s male characters are marginal, and its focus lies firmly with the three sisters and their hang-ups, and with Anna who seems to be the only one who is not afraid of Agnes’ mortality, her slow decay, both before and after her actual physical death. It is mainly with Anna, and with her care for Agnes, that the film’s tenderness lies – though this care is by no means unambivalent or even sentimentalised. It is never quite clear whether Anna’s feelings for Agnes are maternal or erotic, or both, or something else yet again, but while there is something unsettling to the ambiguity of their relationship, that quality coexists with the comfort and solace that Anna undoubtedly is willing and able to give to Agnes.
All in all, Cries and Whispers is clearly a Bergman film. It has the themes, the rhythms, the look and the tone. But it is also unusual in that solace is a possibility, and the film ends on a note that is more conciliatory than many of the director’s films. Cries and Whispers is haunting and difficult to watch at times, but I already find myself wanting to rewatch it. It is one of the most harrowing Bergman films we’ve seen at this point, but it may also be the film of his where I most felt that he was able to get over himself, so to speak – and for Bergman, that is not a small thing.