The Ebertvaganza Continues: “Cries and Whispers”

After a couple American films (“Five Easy Pieces”, “The Last Picture Show”, “The Godfather”), we returned Sunday afternoon to Europe and got the first of two back-to-back Bergman movies, “Cries and Whispers” (1972; Ebert’s top movie for 1973).

I’ll keep my comments cursory.

1. It could have made its way to the A.V. Club’s list of “24 Great Films Too Painful to Watch Twice” (if only ‘two times’ had been used instead we’d have too, to and two together … *sigh*), but unlike some films in that list, such as “Requiem for a Dream” and “Dancer in the Dark”, which have both capstone moments of ├╝ber-depression and overarching progressions of dread, or movies like “Irreversible” notable for a single scene so intense many either have to look away or stop watching altogether (as well as a kick in the face feeling of dread at the end), “Cries and Whispers” does not carry increasing weight, and the truly difficulty scenes are not gratituitous, particularly long, or particularly frequent. The difficult scenes deal with Agnes in pain. The camera always maintains a respectful distance and a deliberateness that is not so cold as to be clinical; those who believe in the worth of the term might call it ‘objective’. It’s ‘realistic’ in a sense. It is clearly staged, but is not what we think of when we use the term ‘theatrical’. It pains us without feeling manipulative. Of course, I’m temporarily ignoring Karin’s brutal self-mutilation; there is constant visual build-up to it as she and the camera return again and again to that broken shard of glass, but when the moment comes we don’t really expect it. We squirm.

2. It did, however, make the A.V. Club’s list of “25 great songs, books, films, albums, and TV shows in which cancer plays a major role” (number 9).

3. It’s wonderfually cinematic; and it won an Oscar for its cinematography. Its fades, its use of space — walking through the manor –, these are all elements not exactly unique to film as a medium, but they are perhaps best exploited there. And before you ask, how much more crimson could it be, the answer is: none more crimson.

Anna holding Agnes, in "Cries and Whispers"

Anna holding Agnes, in “Cries and Whispers”; taken from the Criterion Collection

4. It’s also like a series of wonderful paintings. Perhaps sculptures. And here I’m thinking of Anna holding Agnes’ body in bed. There are other, almost static shots that also remind of landscape paintings, portraits, and still lifes … the manor itself, however, is decorated but spartan when it comes to representational art. Marie, however, has a doll house. And when I think of painting and cinema, I think of composition, and here I like contrasting Kubrick and Bergman, if only because there was a moment with one of the bed chambers where I imagined it as the counterpoint to Bowman at the end of “2001”. Others have written about Kubrick’s use of a centered one-point perspective; here Bergman’s compositions are much less off-putting but no less deliberate. Beds and tables in particular provide a great deal of symmetry and stability. They’re almost treated as stages, except in Marie’s tale; the angles are there, there are often objects in the way. This is just a non sequitur.

5. And it’s a very stagey movie. It’s easy to watch it and think, here’s a first act, a second, a third, and so on. There are four women, each with an ‘act’ focused on them in a way, so it’s tempting to say it’s a four-act structure (Agnes, Marie, Karin, Anna) with Agnes’ death in the middle. I think the death — the dying, death, and immediate aftermath — is protracted enough to count as an act, so that we have:

  • Agnes, her pain and her flashbacks to childhood. We also get a little bit of Anna.
  • Marie, the doctor, her flashback.
  • Agnes’ final suffering and death; the arrival of the priest.
  • Karin’s story: her flashback and mutilation.
  • A resolution involving Karin & Marie interacting, Anna, the ‘ressurection’, and the departure of the family members.

The structure is rather balanced around the death, which occurs just about right in the middle. In the first half we get Marie’s story, introduced by a male voiceover; in the second half we get Karin’s, likewise introduced by a male voiceover. In each we get the sisters’ husbands and acts of violence, self-inflicted, though in the former it’s the cuckolded husband and in the latter it’s the self-hating wife. Our ‘rising action’ (following this simplistic, classical model) one the one hand tells Marie’s tale and on the other shows a house ‘unified’ around caring for Agnes in her final days; our ‘falling action’ follows the fallout of her death, Karin’s story, and show this house being barely held together; everyone has their own interests.

In any case, it comes across as very … theatrical.

6. But a problem with all these remarks is critics have not infrequently referred to Bergman’s work as over-reliant on the theatre, being non-cinematic, etc. There’s nothing new here; it’s the problem with posting these comments in such a permanent form, when all they do is reflect my immediate reaction during the film, not reflection and analysis after the fact, even though their permanence suggests the latter, more monolog for posterity than a dialog or conversation.

7. Other views on “Cries and Whispers” and Bergman:

8. It’s a movie set in the late 19th century with that realist and naturalist sense about it, more than a little bit Ibsen, but not foreign to Fontaine and others from the continent, either. It’s the subject matter, of course, but it’s also how it deals with it. What I love about ‘genre’ pictures (especially science fiction, but often horror and thrillers as well) is their employment of a grand ‘idea’ … it provides a feeling of ambition, not necessarily originality, but a sense that something is being attempted, not just practiced, that actual creativity is underway. But when it comes to characters and narrative these genre pieces fall into a flatness of types even more so than the formula that also, necessarily, marks “bourgois realism” and the like. I watch crime procedurals, I watch ‘Millennium’, I watch … good movies, bad movies, and the like. Partly it’s an ‘American’ thing, partly it’s narrative convenience, but far too often there is ‘good and bad’, and characters are mere embodiments. The question must be raised: do we need ‘good and evil’ because of a need to place blame when bad things happen, or do we feel the need to place blame because we deal within the framework of good and evil? And quite possibly there is no ‘because’; they are a formal unity and only make sense together. Or not. In any case, there is a theological substrate in “Cries and Whispers” that comes out most strongly in the 3rd act, though it appears early when Anna prays. Back to characters, though: ‘good and evil’ are not the underlying operative traits here, one feels, and so characters can have all sorts of traits without those traits signifying goodness, evilness, etc. The long-dead mother could be casually cruel, Karin is frequently — always? — hateful, and so on, but that does not turn them into ‘bad people’, people in modern movies and television shows we’d immediately begin to distrust. Marie is selfish, and the doctor diagnoses himself as likewise, but his longer analysis of her features and how she has aged, what these traits mean, is both ‘mean’ and perhaps ‘manipulative’ on his part, but it doesn’t feel as if it was meant merely to hurt her. I don’t feel the need to dump either into a certain moralistic or soap opera ‘adulturer’ or ‘manipulator’ or ’emotional abuser’ category.

This is no great revelation. But it’s a bit of a reminder: “Cries and Whispers” is intense, but it’s also refreshing in a pop-culture-age in which the Sturm und Drang is almost always dialed up to 11.

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