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 the bedroom of one of the sisters in the night, says Agnes has taken a turn for the worse. A sleepy voice answers, but the sister appears quickly, and the two women scuffle down a long, broad corridor to the other sister’s room. She comes out, pulling on a robe, and all three go hurriedly, silently downstairs to Agnes, white moths against the shadows, ghosts fluttering past the red walls and the dark, heavy furniture.
I insist on this moment because there is a sense in which the movie is about the red wallpaper and the mood it creates, and because these interiors look so different from the bare island landscapes of recent Bergman movies that it would be very easy to miss the continuity of concern which links Cries and Whispers to Hour of the Wolf, say, or Shame, or The Passion of Anna.
All three of those films were shot on the island where Bergman lives, and the bleakness and stillness of the place corresponds perfectly to the desolate, halted lives it harbors in the films. It is an open place, to be walked on, explored, driven across, but it is also a piece of land you can’t leave, a place that locks you into yourself. The roads are blocked when people try to leave the island in Shame, and the only escape is into nightmare, into the oppressive dream of the floating dead with which the film ends. The same is true of Hour of the Wolf, except that no one tries to leave the island, and nightmare comes visiting uninvited. The Passion of Anna closes with Max von Sydow marching up and down on a short beach, dithering, uncertain but rooted in that small space, trapped in his own rage and humiliation and defeat.
The old house in Cries and Whispers, then, is a version of Bergman’s island, different but the same, as in a dream, a natural home for the ruined, depleted self, a monument to silence and isolation. What is different, of course, is the whispering, these images of women gliding quietly through these rooms, through their lives. The loud, bitter quarrels of Shame and The Passion of Anna, and the violence of war and madness surrounding the violence of personal relations in those films, have given way to an infinite decorum, and a dark, confining house, the opposite of raw sea air. The movie is about whispers becoming cries, about what whispers would say if they became cries, as Agnes’s sweetly borne suffering literally becomes a harrowing, throat-clutching death rattle. Thus Maria, the soft, warm, shallow sister, sees her husband killing himself in response to one of her infidelities. Thus Karin, the frigid, morbid, eldest sister, inserts a splinter from a broken wine glass into her vagina, muttering, “It’s all a tissue of lies.” Pain is truth, presumably, and she could hardly have hit on a more limpid metaphor for her hatred of her husband, waiting for her to come to bed.
Pain. A character in Shame says he has known closeness to others only in connection with pain, and Cries and Whispers seems to be taking that thought a little further. Agnes’s pain brings the three sisters together, and pain is an instrument of self-definition for Maria and Karin. Pain is where their imaginations lead them, is what waits for them at the end of the logic of their lives. But pain is also a means by which Bergman reaches out for us, makes contact, comes close. We are too close to Agnes’s desperate, graceless, noisy death, rendered with the cinema’s incomparable capacity for realism—as if the magic of the first days of the movies, real people seen leaving a factory, a real train approaching, had been borrowed to rub our noses in real cancer. We wince when Karin inserts her glass splinter and walks painfully across the room, and we are meant to wince.
The film assaults us at these moments, inflicts a kind of punishment on us for being in the cinema, for coming in to spy on death and pain, or perhaps for treating real life, outside the cinema, as a movie, something to be stared at in comfort. Perhaps more simply Bergman is saying, with grim existential fervor, that he can speak to us only by showing pain, that meticulous portraits of pain are the only way to break out of celluloid and into life, to make us feel. I hope he’s wrong; he certainly makes his case with a great deal of force, and the temptation to call the movie a dream in the mind of Bergman, or to insist on its careful, sumptuous photography, must in large part be a temptation to scale down the vivid, ugly reality of the film.
What goes wrong in Cries and Whispers, though, is not its insistence on reality but its attempt at fable. There is a failure of control in some details too. For example, Karin, early in the film, is doing the accounts. She drops her pen across the book with a dry, weary gesture, then throws down her pince-nez with a stiff, slight, sharp flick of the wrist, and these are perfect evocations of her despair, of a poverty of feeling in her and around her. On the other hand, we see Maria asleep with her dolls, which ought to do the trick, say what Bergman means well enough. But he can’t resist a long excursion with the camera down and around a doll’s house, which is beautiful, but suggests that Maria’s childishness is more important and interesting than it is. Conversely, Liv Ullmann, as Maria, brings grace and economy and complication to the role, whereas Ingrid Thulin, as Karin cracking up, behaves as if she were the wife of Dracula, screaming and laughing and frowning in a manner quite out of key with the distinction of the rest of her performance, or even with the odd, small, eloquent gestures she manages once or twice in the middle of her ranting.
But the main problem is the dream of Anna, the maid, in which Agnes, now dead and laid out, weeps waxy tears and summons her sisters and Anna to her room, one by one. Karin is too cold, and says she doesn’t love her; Maria fakes warmness but is repelled when the corpse tries to kiss her; only Anna, the faithful servant and peasant earth mother, for whom Agnes has come to replace her child lost in infancy, can face the dead woman and stanch her tears, and cradle her on her capacious bosom. The spare, rather formal narrative structure of the film invites us to consider this episode as taking place in the gothic imagination of Anna, but it resembles the over-all message of the movie too closely for that alibi to stick. The gothic imagination here is Bergman’s, and the movie is flopping into bathos. When Anna says, staring at the speaking corpse, “It’s all a dream,” and the corpse croaks lugubriously, “It may be a dream for you, but it’s not a dream for me,” we seem to have struck extraordinary new film territory: Groucho Marx playing Strindberg.
In order to make his film move, to make something happen, Bergman has had to animate his intuition, his initial, undramatic image of women rustling in redness, and he does this unequally, and at the point I have just described, disastrously. The curious thing is that none of this really impairs the film, which rides so perfectly on its mood, on the intensity and mystery which are generated by whatever these women and this house mean to Bergman, that one merely registers flaws without paying any attention to them—they sink into some part of the mind that has nothing to do with one’s enjoyment of the film, or even with how the film seems on reflection.