Cries and Whispers
Ingmar Bergman Directs
Deeper Into Movies
Bergman, as Pauline Kael wrote recently in the New Yorker, is a movie-maker for people who don’t like movies, and it is hard to stop this fact from counting either too much for him or too much against him. For him, because he helps us to feel better about the movies as an art form, about their chances of surviving comparisons with painting or literature. Against him, because we may feel that art of this cultivated, antiquated, borrowed kind has nothing much to do with the movies we really like. Bergman is a fascinating case, since he really is an artist in two senses: in whatever sense Buñuel and Renoir are artists, but also in whatever sense Welles and Hitchcock are—and if they are not artists, then Bergman, in so far as he does the things they do, is not an artist either.
Bergman is an author, that is, but he is also a magician, an illusionist, an architect of panic, and in movies magicians are just as important as artists. Welles, with all his frivolity, matters as much as Antonioni, with all his “meaning”; and good tricks are better than bad solemnities. It is possible, then, to see Bergman at his best as being intelligent and gifted both in his moral and intellectual preoccupations and in his use of the cinema. It is also possible to see him as succeeding on one front and failing or fumbling on another. Cries and Whispers is an instance, more interesting as a pure movie, as a piece of Hitchcock gone gothic, than it is as a proposition about the pain and solitude of human life. Except of course that there is no such thing as a pure movie.
The film opens with a sequence of quick, beautiful shots of a park: mist among trees, bits of statuary on the grass, the corner of a large old country house; morning light, an impression of autumn. This is more or less the last time we see an exterior in the film. We look out of a window once, and see the park again, and there is sunlight occasionally within the memories of characters in the movie, but not much. Apart from this, Bergman literally imprisons us in that old house, with its large rooms, draperies, lamps, countless gilt clocks, and endless red wallpaper. Agnes lives here, a woman of about thirty-five and dying of cancer. Her two sisters have come to stay. They and a maid, Anna, are caring for her.
The moment in the movie which defines and virtually exhausts its mood is indicated in the tag end of a sentence in the story Bergman published in the New Yorker last year, which is less a script or an outline for the movie than a parallel creation, the same material worked out in another medium: “…all the restless shadows when someone wrapped in a wide peignoir hurries through the big rooms….” In the movie the maid knocks at the door of …