Cries and Whispers ★★★★


Director: Ingmar Bergman
Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin & Liv Ullmann
Runtime: 91m

"I wander through our childhood home sometimes, where all is at once strange but familiar, and it seems I am in a dream and an event of great importance is in store for us."

Three sisters - Maria (Ullmann), Karin (Thulin) and Agnes (Andersson), who is in the late stages of uterine cancer - reunite in their childhood home. Accompanied by Anna (Sylwan), their religious servant who has formed a close bond with Agnes, they each reflect on their experiences, relationships and infidelities as the inevitable draws nearer, slowly unravelling the fragile bond that has barely held them together over the years in the process.

Bergman weaves together a rich tapestry of psychosexual trauma, inter-familial strife and acrimony, innocent but coquettish naivety and sexually repressed longing in his portrayal of these four women, each of whom serves as a vehicle for portraying an aspect of his own mother's personality. The flirtatious but childish Maria, with her shock of red hair and her coy sneers, stands in contrast to the languorous and despondent Karin (a name she shares with Bergman's aforementioned mother), who resents her sisters and abhors physical contact. Agnes, whose cancer ravages her from the inside, mirroring the tearing asunder of the sisters' relationship, is left to gasp for breath and shriek for attention, while a bitter antagonism towards each other, their lovers and their miserable existences threatens to overwhelm them all.

The violent pain and grief that each sister experiences, which stems from a perception of death as a betrayal and an abandonment, is often muted, though the titular whispers are flecked with anger and rage, while their hysterical, overwrought cries are an expression not just of sorrow for those lost to death but also for the disintegration of their relationship. The crimson, blood red setting, which in the beginning contrasts starkly with the pure white dresses worn by the sisters but by the end has fused with and almost consumed them, parallels the violence they exact on themselves and others, while the regular flashbacks - memories fraught with anguish and enmity - reveal that the characters are wracked with self-loathing that they attribute to the actions and behaviours of others.

Bergman portrays his central characters, particularly Maria and Karin, as neurotic and frenzied, though his film is not without sympathy and compassion for them. His narrative is predominantly about the harrowing impact of grief and trauma, not just on women but on families and society at large. Bergman finds some solace in the notion of death as a release but also acknowledges its effects on those who survive. Whether our despair is cried or whispered, whether we embrace it or run from it, it is ever-present and ever-dominant in our lives.

This is powerful and accomplished filmmaking that is sometimes a little too feverish and emotionally strained. Bergman's distinctive style, which is intensely laboured, results in a dourness that is sometimes difficult to swallow, and the performances, while vigorous, feel rather manufactured. Nonetheless, it's hard to resist the potency of the narrative, nor the sheer heft of the film's stark aesthetic and imagery. CRIES AND WHISPERS is a film that demands your attention and one that deserves multiple viewings, such is its poetic depth.