Friday, 30 April 2010

Cries and Whispers

Ria Munk On Her Deathbed by Gustav Klimt, 1912:


Death in the Sickroom by Edvard Munch, 1895:

Perhaps the most striking thing about Cries and Whispers, beyond the actual look of the film, is the incredible use of silence to draw out that particular evocation of characters waiting for the inevitable. It is within these prolonged moments of images robbed of sound that the filmmaker is able to establish the sense of confinement; of characters disengaged, not only from the family or from the people closest to them, but somehow disconnect from their own emotional responses to these events as they unfold. It is through this continual near-silence that Bergman creates a suitably clandestine environment for this claustrophobic chamber film to develop; fully aware that any brief release of emotion, any spilled secret or slip of the mask, will resonate throughout the house and through the barriers that have formed between these distant characters haunted by the past.

The silence of Cries and Whispers could be taken as a deliberate obstruction, as disarming - in the sense of engaging the film through the greater lives of these characters - as the Brechtian elements of previous Bergman dramas like Persona (1966) or A Passion (En Passion, 1969); two films in which the director succeeded in placing the audience at an arm's length, aware of the situation and privy to the reactions of the characters and the drama that surrounds them, but also transfixed by the filmmaking technique and how it relates explicitly to the fate of these lives that drift in the balance. It could also be seen as a way of keeping the audience observant; misdirecting us as to what might actually happen, and thus creating a palpable tension; where the build up to a certain scene is prolonged to the point of almost abstract absurdity as we spend the first few minutes of the film hoping and waiting for someone to speak, or some sound beyond that of the distant ticking clock and all its mocking allusions to time and of life slowly slipping away, to break through and offer some sort of respite from the strangulating despair that Bergman carefully creates.

When the silence does break - finally stirring with the early morning light to fracture this impenetrable wall of stillness - it is not a note of hope or of comfort, but instead a scream of pain and anguish: the first suffering cry before the inevitable unravelling of thoughts, feelings and deceits that eventually unfold.


Cries and Whispers directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

The titles of Bergman's films were always incredibly descriptive, giving the potential audience a sense of the central theme of the film or the particular physical or psychological malady that plagued his central characters, but also defining a tone. Blunt and descriptive titles like Shame (Skammen, 1966), The Touch (Beröringen, 1971) and Face to Face (Ansikte mot ansikte, 1976) to name only a select few, get to the very core of the drama in a way that covers both the physical and emotional perspectives of his protagonists. Much like the title of this film, which again creates a suggestion in the mind of the potential audience as to what kind of film they could expect - Cries and Whispers, or from the literal Swedish translation, Whispers and Cries - in which the slow-death of the middle-aged Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is contrasted against the thoughts, fears and regrets of her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), and her maid turned personal carer Anna (Kari Sylwan), as the ghosts of the past chatter about this bleak house and we, as an audience, try to make sense of the thing.

It is the combination of sounds and silence - and the spaces between words that say so much more than conventional dialog ever could - that coerce us through this tragedy. Maintaining that incredibly numbing atmosphere, filled with illness and disease, Bergman envisions a painful world where the death-rattle choke of Agnes speaks volumes, not only about her own character, but of the feelings of the other three women who tend to her draconian-like deathbed. As is often the case with Bergman, the drama here is localised mostly to a single location; in this case a large family manor house in the autumnal Swedish countryside, where characters congregate in some kind of seclusion, plagued by the many sinful, unspoken and embarrassing secrets that seem to permeate from the guilt and despair of these three very different women. It is this sense of inner pain that embodies the house with a shocking red hue, offering the fairly obvious though no less powerful associations to the colour or blood, the colour of sickness and the colour of rage.


No. 14, 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960:


Cries and Whispers directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

The continual image of black and white-clad figures against a backdrop of piercing deep reds is near iconic within the Bergman filmography, combing that visualisation of a particular shared psychological space that is only broken at the end of the film, when a pastoral garden scene offers some kind of relief or reflection of how things were, or how things could have been. There is also the continual device of the fade to red; a fairly novel use of a scene punctuation/transition, which not only announces the movements between memory and reality, but in some way further stresses the idea of characters being swallowed up by the acrid stench of death that clings to them. This approach, combined with Bergman's extraordinary use of the close-up shot, creates an experience that is all the more punishing; as each full-face composition offers the audience the opportunity to study these characters, their faces and the look of fear or duplicity in their worried eyes, and cast judgement or pity upon them as we see it.

It also allows us to study the performances of these four female leads - Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan and Liv Ullman - who each give superlative performances as these women dealing with the passing of time, memory and death, and their reactions to all of the above. In this sense, the use of silence is much more notable, not only for its element of deconstructing the natural rhythm that we might normally expect, but in the way in which it establishes the mood of tragedy, of the pre-mortem and post-mortem limbo that traps these characters in tortured suffocation, infusing the very core of the film's visual identity and the way that we, as an audience, interpret it.


Cries and Whispers directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:


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