In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman describes his experience of being shut inside the mortuary at Sophiahemmet, the royal hospital on whose grounds he roamed freely as a child. He writes:
The young girl who had just been treated lay on a wooden table in the middle of the floor. I pulled back the sheet and exposed her. She was quite naked apart from a plaster that ran from throat to pudenda. I lifted a hand and touched her shoulder. I had heard about the chill of death, but the girl’s skin was not cold but hot. I moved my hand to her breast, which was small and slack with an erect black nipple. There was dark down on her abdomen. She was breathing.
He tells how he recalled the scene in the prologue to Persona (1966), how he tried to portray it in Hour of the Wolf (1968) but then cut it out, and how it found its final form in Cries and Whispers (1972). This film seems to hold the feelings of an unreal, clinical encounter with a body—youthful, erotic, laid out—between living and dying. It is steeped with fear and wonder. In his volume Images: My Life in Film, Bergman finds these words to speak of Cries and Whispers: “I believe that the film—or whatever it is—consists of this poem: a human being dies but, as in a nightmare, gets stuck halfway through and pleads for tenderness, mercy, deliverance . . .”
The film began for Bergman as a recurring space: a room draped all in red, with women clad in white. For the viewer, it opens with achingly pure dawn images: a statue in the gardens, blue fingerprints of shadow, a bird’s song and falling rays of sun (Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s frequent collaborator, won the Academy Award for best cinematography). The azure, Edenic images of the start are gradually engulfed in crimson, in the film’s first fade to saturated red. The blood color coats the image with a startling, almost sickening bodily immediacy. This is the color we see behind our eyelids.
Cries and Whispers is, primarily, a film of the red interior, of this abstract redness and the dream spaces it conjures, of the maternal womb, and of a literal red, soft-furnished room where women wait for a loved one to die. Bergman worked on the screenplay from the end of March to the start of June in 1971, in what he describes as “almost hermetic isolation on Fårö island.” It is a film enclosed in the mortuary, yet it is much more than a chamber piece in its vast, echoing themes of mortality and maternal eroticism.
Agnes (Harriet Andersson) has been gripped by illness for twelve years. The film attends to the last stages of her agony and to the days after her death. At her bedside are her sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann), for Bergman “the most beautiful one,” and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), “the strongest one,” and the family servant, Anna (Kari Sylwan), “the serving one.” In its structure, as it moves its focus among the three sisters and their servant, and as it summons incursive episodes from the past, Cries and Whispers uses the deathbed, mortality, as a turning point in the characters’ lives, a moment of judgment. Involved in this is an excoriating critique of class and privilege, manifested as we observe the sisters’ failures of attention to Agnes. Foreshadowing Bergman’s more lavish period reckoning with an Edwardian family in Fanny and Alexander (1982), Cries and Whispers creates a nineteenth-century world of melancholy that has been compared to Chekhov, to his Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, and to Strindberg. Close-up images of a dollhouse with miniature furniture and porcelain inhabitants, a further theatrical trope of female entrapment, recalling Ibsen, evoke with pathos the coldness and vacuity of the bourgeois family.
The return home to sit at the deathbed brings with it reflections on childhood. For Agnes, thoughts collect around her mother. She breathes in the scent of a pale rose, holding it pressed to her face, and the film cuts from its luminous cream petals to shots of her mother walking in sunshine in the gardens. We hear Agnes’s voice: “Mother is in my thoughts nearly every day.” Her mother is seen in a sensual white dress, its full fabric tender about her, floating as she walks, gauzy, trailing, flocked. Agnes recalls her mother retreating to the gardens and how, as a child, she would spy on her. The camera seems to adopt her hidden stance as we glimpse her mother walking in and out of pools of sunlight between the tended spruce trees. As later in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman aligns the camera’s perspective with a child’s consciousness.
Agnes remembers following her mother at a distance because she loved her “to such a jealous extreme.” The emotions here, as so frequently in Bergman, are pushed to their finest point; her voice continues: “I loved her because she was so gentle and beautiful and alive and so very, very present.” This love affair with the mother is expressed as attraction to a feminine docility, yet also an erotic loveliness and life force. Bergman said of himself: “I was very much in love with my mother . . . She was a very warm and a very cold woman. When she was warm, I tried to come close to her. But she could be very cold and rejecting.” Agnes, too, remembers her mother as lover, cruel also, rebuffing her. Her childhood memories unfold into a scene of a magic lantern show on Twelfth Night where she is tortured by her mother’s closeness with Maria, their whispering and laughing together, their likeness (Ullmann plays both the mother and the adult Maria). Another flashback shows the child Agnes peering through lace as she observes her mother, a primal scene for the film: “She sat in her white dress in the red drawing room.” The mother calls to Agnes and gives her a look “so full of sorrow” that the child nearly cries.
Bergman’s work with actresses was alchemical in its precipitation of gilded, sensory images on-screen, in particular of Liv Ullmann from Persona forward, but also of Harriet Andersson, for whom he wrote Summer with Monika (1953), of Ingrid Thulin, of Bibi Andersson. His unique capture of his actresses’ sensuality, of female skin, elasticity and softness, has been enmeshed in multiple narratives of his love affairs and erotic fascination, while it is also part of his plastic, psychologically sensitive vision as a filmmaker. In Cries and Whispers, more than in any of his other films, the erotic is aligned most closely with the maternal, the two brought together in fullest flower. And this maternal eroticism goes beyond traditional psychoanalytic ideas of sexuality and repression, exploring women’s feelings, as part of children’s relations to them and as bound up in tender acts of love and care. If Bergman’s pleasure in this vision electrifies the film, his rapture is also part of a set of finer analyses of feeling, of complex, unspoken emotion.
In retrospect, beyond jealousy and love, the adult Agnes speaks of her sympathy for her mother in all her boredom and loneliness. The film is pregnant with the sense that Agnes is repeating her mother’s early death, that she has remained in the red room of her childhood and that in her suffering now she seeks from her sisters the sympathy she felt later for their mother. Her search for maternal love, loving arms, accompaniment, is pressing throughout the film. Indeed, the film opens through Agnes its most stringent questions about being present for the other, about accompanying the living and the dying, about care and love. It is in this film that Bergman confronts most directly, most movingly, questions of facing death that preoccupy so many of his films. Describing Cries and Whispers in Images, he writes:
Agnes dies at the beginning of the drama. Yet she is not dead. She is lying in the room, in her bed; she calls out to the others, the tears streaming down her cheeks. Take me, keep me warm! Stay with me! Don’t abandon me. The only one who pays attention to her cries and offers her tenderness is Anna, who tries to warm her with her own body.
The film, though delicate in its turns of emotion, is devastating in its critique of the sisters’ failures. This is its mode of operation. When Maria tries to seduce the family doctor, her former lover, he gazes into her beautiful face and details one by one its points of hardening, wrinkling, affectation, all physical traces of her affective misdemeanors. We see her so in love with herself, in Bergman’s words, “completely absorbed by her own beauty.” In the delineation of her moral flaws physically writ, there is a reflection of Bergman’s harsh, near-sadistic strategies in the film, of his remorseless vision of his characters’ errors. The one who is untouched in this critique is Anna, who is a calm, pure presence. Her physical stillness, her soft plait of hair, her milky skin, entrance the viewer. Without sentimentality, the film observes her closeness to Agnes, her domestic labor for the family, and the inhumanity of her final treatment by Maria, Karin, and their husbands. And Anna, in her maternal virtue, is at the center of two of the film’s most lawless, unfettered scenes.
In the first, Agnes weeps at the pain that hurts her so. Anna undoes her nightgown and reaches easily to take Agnes’s face to her breast. She kisses Agnes on her cheek and on her mouth, pressing her face to her so lightly as she strokes her hair. Agnes is held, relief and undoing in her expression. The shots are filmed so closely the faces fill the frame and we see the small moves as Agnes and Anna yield to each other, as the film holds their touch, their breath.
The second scene comes after Agnes has died and woken again into the distressed, unnatural half life that is the film’s miracle and horror. She cries out Christlike, and her sisters, approaching her, are repelled by her contaminating grasp, her rotting body. Anna, by contrast, comes close. If she has appeared like Caravaggio’s Mary, or his penitent Magdalene, tender, human, here her humility is fully pictured. The film realizes its pietà image where Anna, undressed, cradles Agnes on her lap, soothing her on her raised thigh.
These two scenes are unequaled in any film, I think, in their finding of a form, an image, to hold unspeakable emotions. We feel Agnes’s longing for her mother and her deepest physical distress both sensually assuaged here. Bergman offers an image of exposure, of laying bare, of closeness, that is at once peculiarly soothing, beautiful, erotic, and unbearable. Cries and Whispers pushes toward a brute physicality and deep expressivity in its flesh images. This grain, this fleshiness, is echoed in its sounds: the horror of Agnes’s labored breathing before she dies, her infant cries for help after death, the gasps and hysteria of Maria as she believes she is trapped in this mortuary room with her sister.
The last scene of the film, its afterimage, animates a sequence from Agnes’s diary. The three sisters and Anna walk in the gardens in the autumn. Anna softly rocks the sisters on the swing, the sunlight showing the white sheen and beribboned beauty of their dresses. For Agnes, “come what may, this is happiness.” The film dares the lyricism of this reprieve, even after it has shown Agnes’s agony. Its achievement, making it emerge from Bergman’s extraordinary corpus as unique, is in its incandescent touching of love and horror in their fullest extremes. This is pursued in particular in the film’s sensual apprehension of women, adored and loathed, in their attention to each other, in their holding and touching, as Bergman lets Cries and Whispers summon all at once, in perfection, the blossom softness of the mother’s body and the uncanny, hot and cold beauty of the female corpse.