“It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.” So writes Agnes (Harriet Andersson) early on in Cries and Whispers, and at this point in the film, it’s the only voice writer-director Ingmar Bergman has allowed his terminally ill protagonist, who’s soon to writhe and wail in pain as a result of her uterine cancer. Although she hasn’t yet spoken, Sven Nykvist’s cinematography has already lingered on Agnes’s face in close-up, as her cracked lips, dry mouth, and strained swallows resound louder and with more psychical force than her audible words possibly could. In place of explicit dialogue, Owe Svensson’s sound mix possesses much of the film’s force, ranging from the single, triangle percussion note that repeats throughout the opening credits, to the whispered tongue-lashing David (Erland Josephson) gives Maria (Liv Ullmann) regarding her aged visage. As the film’s title itself perhaps suggests, sounds can bleed with anguish as easily as flesh.
Yet there are also moments of literal bleeding in Cries and Whispers, which too firmly enunciate the film’s interests in the various slipstreams of a medium, be they lived or cinematic bodies. What materializes throughout is less an exemplary work on the nature of faith and decay than an austere exercise in form that banalizes the concept of an “art film” by reducing its passages to their most symptomatic qualities. Bergman prepped viewers for these inclinations with much more dynamism and reflexivity in Persona, which bookended its horrors of identity slippages with montage-like passages of birth and death, where the flicker of a projector can give life to images, but their resolution and usage must be left to the artist whose shaping and modeling of faces can just as easily be fetishistic as humanizing. Cries and Whispers reorients such interrogations to the tale of a 19th-century estate, where Maria and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) look after their dying sister with the assistance of Anna (Kari Sylwan), a housemaid, who’s much closer to Agnes than either of her colder, emotionally distant kin.
Bergman literally paints the walls of the estate red, in addition to including a solid red background for the opening credits and “fade to reds” that introduce and conclude three different unnamed chapters, each one devoted to Agnes’s caregivers. Red is so proliferate throughout that Bergman initially invites its presence to be understood as an attempt to negate symbolic valences, as if the décor proffered by the family’s undisclosed sources of wealth were bathed in monochromatic tones to eject a textual labyrinth, rather than invite it. In other words, red as a purely visual concept instead of an abstracted, even allegorical component of the mise-en-scène.
Unfortunately, Bergman reveals the image to correspond precisely with larger, symbolic means, not just through the presence of sacrificial blood, but also in the Christ-like manner Agnes’s suffering is depicted throughout, even if her cancer never manifests through direct, visible evidence. In lieu of this, Bergman offers Karin carving up her genitals with a piece of glass, then blithely smearing blood on her face as a visible protest of…something, though the precise significance of her action isn’t stated outright. Bergman offers the deed seemingly for its gesticulating and provocative resonances, but whatever might be powerful about such an image as a moment of rejection either of body or social order is shriveled by Bergman’s refusal to encode the scene within a larger, more directed explication of femininity regarding the 19th-century setting, which is reduced to a striking, period-piece backdrop throughout the film’s duration.
Nor does a particularly discernible offering of meta-cinematic commentary materialize either. A flashback to Agnes’s childhood reveals Bergman’s beloved magic lantern, but it comes and goes with little attention. Likewise, the family’s house is littered with kitsch, including models, miniatures, and dolls, but these prim objects serve only as neat correlations for the physically healthy women, clearly expressed in a shot of Maria sleeping soundly in their midst. Agnes’s body, on the other hand, rots away in isolation, with a borderline level of sadomasochistic interest, especially given Bergman’s botched humanism, since historical and character-based examinations are lost amid a multitude of figurative registers. Bergman becomes too literal and self-parodic through an indulgence of interpretive symbolisms, even tritely illustrative of “illness as metaphor,” as Susan Sontag called it. Cries and Whispers abandons genuine spiritual longing in favor of a hollow, manipulative craftsmanship.
This luminous 2K transfer is a worthwhile update from the Criterion Collection’s 2001 DVD, which was serviceable upon its release, but is comprehensively inferior by comparison. Criterion has gone to great lengths in order to preserve the film’s monochromatic color balance, and aside from a few moments where the singular, blood shade of red slightly darkens from shot to shot, they’ve largely succeeded. Images remain clear and focused throughout, with no perceptible debris, marks, or scratches to be found. The mono track is delicately balanced to preserve the film’s many silences and sonic textures, especially in prolonged passages of Agnes’s despair. Those seeking a definitive home-video transfer of Cries and Whispers should look no further. Also included is an English dubbed track.
All that’s been carried over from the DVD is a 52-minute interview with Ingmar Bergman and Erland Josephson, in which they discuss many topics, among them their working relationship and how being a father has affected their films. The new supplements range from middling to essential. On Solace, a video essay by :: kogonada, is certainly the latter, since it seeks to explain the film’s structure as having three movements, each one revealing further depths of the sisters’ largely unspoken desires and trepidations. At only 12 minutes, it convincingly offers a comprehensive reading of the film. Similarly indispensible, a behind-the-scenes featurette reveals exciting glimpses of the crew setting up key shots of the film, while also offering moments from an early press conference about the film’s production. Otherwise, a new interview with Harriet Andersson offers insight into her daily preparation on set, as well as some background on her work with Bergman previously in Through a Glass Darkly. There’s also a brief introduction by Bergman in which he explains the film’s formation as a single, recurring image in his mind. And the packaging rounds out with the film’s theatrical trailer and an essay by film scholar Emma Wilson that celebrates the "hot and cold beauty of the female corpse."
Symbols, and sickness, and signs, oh my! Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers disguises meaning amid a sea of red, which searingly oozes throughout the Criterion Collection’s delicately rendered 2K transfer.