Monday, February 06, 2023

Whispers and Cry (aka Cries and Whispers)

The Passion of Agnes

"...the greatest of those who create such spectacles do not resort to lies but instead get the public to accept their truth, all without breaking the law that the spectacle must represent the rising movement. Both their truth and their madness are accepted, for we must never forget that an artist imposes his madness on an audience less mad, or at least unaware of its madness.

"It might help to cite an example. Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers was a worldwide success though it had all the elements of failure, including the slow torture of a woman dying of cancer — everything the public refuses to look at. But the film's formal perfection, especially the use of red in the decor of the house, constituted the element of exaltation — I would even say the element of pleasure — so that the public immediately sensed that it was watching a masterpiece. And it made up its mind to look at it with an artistic complicity and admiration that balanced and compensated for the trauma of Harriet Andersson's cries and her groans of agony. Others of Bergman's films, no less beautiful, were treated coolly by the public — and perhaps all they lacked were the red walls."

—François Truffaut, from The Films in My Life [Les films de ma vie, 1975], translated by Leonard Mayhew


Storytelling, they say. So then this is the story of Agnes (Andersson) lying in her deathbed in the family manor during the last stages of cancer. Her sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) have come to stay to take care of her, although their efforts are eclipsed by the long-time housekeeper Anna (Kari Sylwan) whose devotion, attention, and affection, bordering on maternal rapport (she lost a daughter years ago) if not outright romantic infatuation, are genuine.

For me the most striking aspect of the film, other than the use of red, white, and black (inspiration to The White Stripes), is Agnes's chapped lips. She is not the buxom Andersson of previous Bergman films; here she is a ravaged body, Munch-like and gaunt, her spine a track running down the skin of her back in awful relief. You can almost smell the sour breath. It's been suggested that her ailment is specifically uterine cancer: from the body to the space, liminal overlap. For such a 'written' filmmaker as Bergman (cf. Guitry, Lubitsch) he 'writes' here first with the decor as imagined — the manor is a menstrual beehive. And as paramount as red, white, and black are to this film, so too is the notion of Time, as evidenced by the stunning close-up shots of the clocks. Whispers rise on the soundtrack. Agnes's lot is a countdown to death; after her passing the family will dissolve again — Anna must be included within that group on account of her abrupt dismissal, whereupon all of her time spent servicing the family since their childhoods has been reduced to an offer to stay on for a month, and to choose a memento from Agnes's belongings. Agnes, the writer of the diary (which it's implied is the object selected and cherished by Anna in the film's final moments), enjoys being read to from Dickens's 1837 The Pickwick Papers; the number of ways this novel's themes can be seen to echo throughout require more words than I'm willing to devote here, not to mention a reacquaintance with the hundred characters in the book. 

The division between the women and men of the film — into neither cliques nor clubs, howsoever — is most poignantly illustrated in the solemn dinner that occurs between Karin and Fredrik (Georg Årlan, in one of the great performance transformations: go from imagining him probably chatting cordially and chuckling with Bergman on-set and during pre-production, to imagining him in this grim persona of Fredrik) minutes before she inserts a shard of glass between her labia out of spite. But n.b. — this sequence contains one of the most brilliant cuts in Bergman: Karin breaks the glass; cut to Fredrik in reverse-shot, but he only looks up to examine what's happened after a quarter-of-a-second lag. It was Bergman's decision not to cut immediately to Fredrik's head jerking upward, but rather, to contain footage from the build-up to the reaction. As I mentioned: Time, temporality, here extends itself in a slow-down, though this cut also attests to the dullness of Fredrik's sympathies and senses.

Another brilliant sequence: During Anna's dream, she hears the cry of her dead child before encountering a reanimated Agnes in her death chamber. Agnes requests first to see Karin, and then Maria. As Anna sends the sisters into the bedroom respectively, the point-of-view hands off from Anna to Karin; back to Anna; then on to Maria. Strange telepathies at work...

Two final notes:

(1) The title Viskningar och rop [1972, by the way] translates, as I understand it, to Whispers and Cry. In both English and French at least, the film was retitled Cries and Whispers and Cris et chuchotements as it flows a little better in both language...

(2) If Chopin couldn't resolve certain phrases in the same manner we do today, how can we expect the film's clan to do the same?

Friday, February 03, 2023

The Touch

Love Story, or: The Fabric of Our Lives

Karin's (Bibi Andersson's) mother lies dead in a hospital bed with windows exposing the traffic of the outside world, a small but chic town on Gotland called Visby. (Unnamed in the film, but explicitly referred to in Stig Björkman's excellent 55-minute documentary from 1972 on the making of the film, Ingmar Bergman.) A more humane hospital setting would be anathema in the United States health-care system. The wedding rings handed over to her by the nurse from the deceased mother set a charge that inflects the rest of the film, a tale of Karin's affair with a Jewish-American archaeologist named David Kovacs (Elliott Gould, who commands lead billing due to the chauvinism of the time and his post-M*A*S*H bankability) behind the back, for only so long, of her husband of 15 years Andreas (Max von Sydow). The meet-cute occurs at a dinner party that takes place some time after Andreas was in the acquaintance of David after treating him from an attempted suicide by gas oven, which David, all mixed-up and bipolar, the majority of his family having been wiped out in the camps, now denies. The Touch [1971] is an undersung masterpiece, Bibi Andersson's finest performance up to this point. Eventually the affair will come to chip away at itself, much like the 500-year-dormant insects whose larvae have sprung to hatching following the unearthing of a wooden sculpture of the Madonna and child.

As Karan Mahajan writes in the essay accompanying Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema set: "When Karin vacuums and stows away laundry in her bright house, the filmmaker throws in a hilarious ad jingle to italicize the moment — a wink, perhaps, to the fact that he first met Andersson while filming a soap commercial." That she should be so enamored with this near sociopath speaks to another point made by Mahajan: the English language 34-year-old Karin uses (beautifully — though she tellingly can't remember the word "hearth") allows her to create a 'second self,' as we've seen so often in Bergman in the previous decade. David's English, on the other hand, is overly arch; he uses phrases like "Have you..." as opposed to "Do you have..." and "mustn't" instead of "have to." He's quite secure in himself, despite being a pretentious ass. Andreas is secure in a different way, blinkered and ignorant and too tolerant; he professes not to have even noticed that at their dinner party David has had too much to drink despite having requested during a projected slide-show that he'd like to see some photos of Karin in the nude.

Some words about David: pajamas were a big thing for men before the 1990s, and he has no compunction about greeting his lover either on, or appearing to have been on, a bender. One might infer much about David's childish clinging-ons and general behavior. His family album contains photos of his family, including his own mother, in contrast Karin's: the photograph is of Bergman's own mother, whose name was Karin. In the final scene David hollers at Karin: "I know you're lying. — I know you're lying, do you hear!" About what? The dissolution of the relationship? That her child in the womb is his, and not Andreas's? She drops her language books — she's been taking Italian classes, and perhaps a third persona, or a wall of uncommunication, is ready to erupt. Throughout the film, the word "touching" is used again and again, as though there's some confusion in the very title of the film The Touch.

The musical piece that plays on occasion throughout the film is "Liksom en herdinna" ["Like a Shepherdess"] by Jan Johansson.