At left: Anna comforts the dying Agnes in CRIES AND WHISPERS
Ingmar Bergman loved women, and often made women the center of his movies. Sometimes, he lived with more than one woman at a time, and shocked everybody. He made the first movie I ever saw about a woman who felt stifled and restricted by motherhood and ended up abandoning the baby to dad, aptly named SUMMER WITH MONIKA, after the patron saint of mothers. I still remember the shot of a spider in a web, which I realized meant Monika felt trapped. (I saw that when I was a young girl, the first time I understood cinematic symbolism.) He presented one of the most incredible and intense studies of women's relationships ever, called PERSONA in which the women are parasitic, loving, hating, changing places, back and forth, their personalities merging, looping, swooping and coming to rest in the other's.
He said he thought of the movie when he saw the two actors Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, standing together in a mirror.
When I first saw CRIES AND WHISPERS, I acted exactly like Roger Ebert's review said I would:
It is hypnotic, disturbing, frightening. It envelops us in a red membrane of passion and fear, and in some way that I do not fully understand it employs taboos and ancient superstitions to make its effect. We slip lower in our seats, feeling claustrophobia and sexual disquiet, realizing that we have been surrounded by the vision of a film maker who has absolute mastery of his art. "Cries and Whispers" is about dying, love, sexual passion, hatred and death - in that order.Somehow, this man had figured out how to speak directly to my id. He was bypassing my conscious mind and going directly to my heart and soul. I DID slip lower in my seat, as I watched two sisters and their family servant, waiting for their third sister to die. Almost as soon as we feel pity for the dying sister, Agnes (obviously, signifying Lamb of God), played by the electrifying Harriet Andersson (also in SUMMER WITH MONIKA), we realize we are mistaken about who deserves our pity. Agnes is indeed the blessed one, as her illness has given her very clear vision. She has no time for grudges and neurotic silliness. She concentrates on savoring every second. She knows the seconds are finite.
Meanwhile, Maria (Liv Ullman) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) bump up against each other with their old dance, sibling rivalry. They show unbridled disgust with the choices the other sister has made. Certainly, my post on Saturday fits the reality of the women in CRIES AND WHISPERS, who want a release from their hatred of each other, and yet... this very hatred has created their personalities; their self-definitions are largely based on NOT being the other sister:
In a moment of conjured nostalgia, Maria and Karin remember their closeness as children. Now, faced with the fact of their sister's death, they deliberately try to synthesize feeling, and love. Quickly, almost frantically, they touch and caress each other's faces, but their touching is a parody and by the next day they have closed themselves off again.And then there is the servant, Anna (Kari Sylwan). Dear God! Has any one character ever moved me so much in movies? It was bad enough, when I initially saw it, that I looked like this woman, but I now realize: I had never seen a large ox-like feminine woman in a movie before. At first, I resented the role of the servant as the sensitive, all-giving one, but at the end of the movie, I wept my heart out.
When Agnes cries out in the night, in fear and agony, it is Anna who cradles her to her bosom, whispering soft endearments.Bergman dares to say that us working-class folks who clean up puke and poop and listen to people cry, are closer to them, made human by them. We touch and are touched by others.
The others cannot stand to be touched.
Finally, Agnes dies. We knew she would, we are told in the first five minutes that she is dying. But did we expect to SEE? He makes us see:
The camera is as uneasy as we are. It stays at rest mostly, but when it moves it doesn't always follow smooth, symmetrical progressions. It darts, it falls back, is stunned. It lingers on close-ups of faces with the impassivity of God. It continues to look when we want to turn away; it is not moved. Agnes lies thrown on her deathbed, her body shuddered by horrible, deep, gasping breaths, as she fights for air for life. The sisters turn away, and we want to, too. We know things are this bad - but we don't want to know. One girl in the audience ran up the aisle and out of the theater. Bergman's camera stays and watches. The movie is drenched in red. Bergman has written in his screenplay that he thinks of the inside of the human soul as a membranous red.And then, Anna speaks to them, after death. This, for me, is the biggest JOLT of the film, since the dead woman is speaking to us about the meaning of life:
The film descends into a netherworld of the supernatural; the dead woman speaks (or is it only that they think they hear her?). She reaches out and grasps for Karin (or does Karin move the dead arms? - Bergman's camera doesn't let us see). The movie, like all supernatural myths, like all legends and fables (and like all jokes - which are talismans to take the pain from truth) ends in a series of threes. The dead woman asks the living women to stay with her, to comfort her while she pauses within her dead body before moving into the great terrifying void. Karin will not. Maria will not. But Anna will, and makes pillows of her breasts for Agnes. Anna is the only one of them who remembers how to touch, and love. And she is the only one who believes in God.I consider myself Christian, so I found the ending of the movie incredible. And yes, here is where I cried my eyes out. I cry now, just remembering the passage:
These two scenes - of Anna, embracing Agnes, and of Karin and Maria touching like frightened kittens - are two of the greatest Bergman has ever created. The feeling in these scenes - I should say, the way they force us to feel - constitutes the meaning of this film. It has no abstract message; it communicates with us on a level of human feeling so deep that we are afraid to invent words for the things found there.
Is there a God in Bergman's film, or is there only Anna's faith? The film ends with a scene of astonishing, jarring affirmation: We see the four women some months earlier, drenched with the golden sun, and we hear Anna reading from Agnes' diary, "I feel a great gratitude to my life, which gives me so much."I would love to have met the artist with such transcendent, creative vision, who forced us to consider what being human meant, and presented WOMEN as his examples of humanity.
Rest in peace.