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?

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