Oscar Blindspots: Cries and Whispers

It might be 50 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1973 through the month of May

Intense, contained, expertly performed, and haunting, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers goes many levels deep to show the selfishness of humanity while monstrosities happen around us.

In a large mansion during the 19th-century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying of cancer. Her sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) arrive to be present for their sister’s final days. As Agnes writhes in constant pain, her sisters are too self-obsessed with their own struggles and relationship to each other to be bothered with Agnes’ pain.

Agnes’ only comfort is the presence and tenderness of Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious family maid. As Agnes fades and eventually dies, the women must deal with their own relationships to each other as well as dealing with the issues of their past and the ghosts of their present.

Bergman has faced his share of criticism for his tormenting of women, and this film lands squarely in the middle of that criticism. Maria and Karin are borderline annoyed and inconvenienced by Agnes’ horribly painful demise and can’t be bothered to separate from their own problems to comfort her. Maria is too preoccupied with the a doctor she once loved to notice Agnes, while Karin has her own pain to deal with. No woman isn’t free from some sort of misery.

Following Agnes’ death, Maria and Karin are much more concerned with their own connection rather than the connection to the sister they never tried to keep. Meanwhile, Anna is the only pure soul in the house. Selflessness is her truest characteristic, and that selflessness is not only is unrewarded, but met with a near punishment. Maria and Karin are too preoccupied with themselves to show any selflessness to ease Agnes’ pain.

Andersson is nothing short of remarkable. Bergman certainly wants to show Agnes as in considerably agony, and Andersson delivers on that agony with painstaking realism. Outside of her physical pain, her faces wears a level of exhaustion and untouched desire without speaking directly to it. Sylwan plays the wonderful calm complement to the harsh abrasiveness of Karin and Maria. She has no real stake in the sister’s relationship, but her own pain causes her to reach out and comfort Agnes in her time of need. Sylwan lives out the meek existence of a servant, but one that knows her eventual conclusion is unjust, despite saying nothing about it.

Ullmann and Thulin have the pricklier roles, but perform beautifully. Ullmann’s grace is a bonus feature to a character who is much harsher and crueler than it plays out. Her desire to connect to her remaining sister rings hollow despite her own belief in her own desires. Thulin is equally wonderful as the most stern and proper of the siblings, but the one who lives through her own self-righteousness. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about the situation, Karin knows she is in the right, despite what her own head tells her.

Bergman bathes the film in blood red, echoing the inherent emotional violence to go along with Agnes pain. Additionally, Bergman plays with reality, incorporating flashbacks and dream sequences for a truly unsettling, but unforgetable experience.

The Oscar-winning cinematography from Sven Nykvist keeps the film bathed in light despite the contrasting tone. The camera lingers on faces, a Bergman trademark, to the point of repulsion. As the camera refuses to cut away from expressions and reactions, the narrative transforms into a perverse circus of anger, resentment, and lasting pain.

The massive mansion is almost a character to itself. Just as beautiful and cold as the sisters, each lounge chair, picture frame, or end table complements the gaudiness of the house’s red walls and carpet. Only at the film’s conclusion do we get the warm relief of leaving the crimson prison of the mansion.

Though unpleasant at times, Cries and Whispers is one of the more grounded Bergman films. Between the four splendid actresses and the resonant themes, the film is just as powerful now as it was 50 years ago.

Next week: Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci team up for the controversial Last Tango in Paris

1972 Oscar Blindspots: The Emigrants
1992 Oscar Blindspots: Howard’s End

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