It’s one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man’s obsession with storytelling. It’s not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there’s a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the […]Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
Bitter Rice is a heck of a film. It’s the story of a couple of refugees from an American film noir who stumble into a grindhouse showing an Italian social-issues drama. The beautiful losers are Walter and Francesca (Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling), a pair of small-time crooks on the run following the heist of a lifetime. The social conscience is personified by a class of peasant women who have for hundreds of years traveled from all over the country to work hard days in the rice fields of northern Italy, and also by, to some degree, ethical, committed soldier Marco (Raf Vallone), who lingers in the rice fields after his discharge because he has come to care about the fate of the women there. And the sex appeal is provided, in spades, by Silvana Mangano, a bombshell and a half. When producer Dino de Laurentiis and director Giuseppe De Santis cast the 18-year-old in the role, she had already appeared in a few films and had been the teenaged girlfriend of young Marcello Mastroianni. But her performance in Bitter Rice–a role that had her shaking her tits, swinging her hips, and hiking her skirt up to here–made her an overnight sensation.
Though it shares some characteristics with noir, Bitter Rice comes straight out of the original Italian post-WWII neorealist movement. It’s much pulpier than textbook neorealism, but it also feels earthier and more grounded than your typical noir. It’s definitely more fun than most neorealistic works, pitting its characters against each other as they jockey for power, shelter, and affection. A cadre of laboring mondine in short shorts or with their skirts hitched up above their thighs might not raise the body temperature of young cinephiles raised with access to Rihanna’s Instagram feed, but in 1949 it must have been quite a diversion. At any rate, according to Gregory D. Black’s book The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975, the film’s U.S. distributor didn’t even bother running it by the Production Code office for approval before booking it in theatres on both coasts. The code’s enforcer, “Mean” Joe Breen, was no doubt dismayed at reports that the picture’s wanton display of female flesh was at once “flagrant and purposeful.” If Bitter Rice annoyed the censors, it ran into similar trouble with left-wing critics who applauded the political aims of neorealist cinema and thus deplored the introduction of salaciousness and genre-film elements into such a film. “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” complained the Marxist critic Guido Aristarco. He had a point: As complete as Bitter Rice‘s commercial success was, its more sensational elements heralded the decline of neorealism, as Italian audiences grew impatient with hard-luck stories and filmmakers began taking more cues from Hollywood cinema, which dominated the local box-office.
I’m not saying De Santis was deliberately moving away from neorealist principles. In fact, he takes pains to balance the movie’s genre pleasures by underscoring the story’s roots in reality. The opening scene features a narrator speaking directly to the audience to bring context to what we’re about to see: a grandly-choreographed tableau of a station where hordes of female laborers are boarding trains bound for the Po Valley rice fields. As the camera pulls back, the fourth wall drops into place as the man assumes the persona of a broadcaster and declares, “This is Radio Turin,” before continuing to describe the scene, which De Santis pans across to establish the grand scale of his production–scores of women walking, a train chugging towards the station, trucks passing by–before the camera alights on a pair of undercover cops scanning the crowd. Another impressive tracking shot, this one moving sideways alongside one of the train cars (we see the passengers inside, framed through their little windows), stops to introduce Silvana (the character shares Mangano’s first name), dancing among a group of women in repose as, in the background of the scene, a line of workers carrying baskets moves purposefully, in counterpoint to her relative abandon.
It’s all the stage-setting the picture needs. Walter dances briefly with Silvana before he is spotted by police. He flees the scene and Francesca boards a train out of town, stolen loot in hand, blending in easily with the migrant workers. Meanwhile, the attentive Silvana quickly deduces that Francesca and Walter were behind a newsmaking jewelry theft. Thus a romantic triangle is created, and the necklace Francesca clutches in a perfumed handkerchief becomes a talisman of sorts that changes hands, rising and falling in significance, over the course of the feature. So that’s the pulpy, noirish storyline. It’s carefully interwoven with a salt-of-the-earth tale of Italian labor, as a group of uncontracted workers (including Francesca) faces off against unionized labor for a share of the rice fields. Bitter Rice shows the adversarial relationship turning to solidarity as a community develops among workers all sharing the same kind of hard-luck stories regardless of their status. And there are metaphors aplenty. Walter’s crass treatment of both Francesca and Silvana suggests the exploitation of the Italian poor by its formerly fascist government, and Silvana’s enthusiasm for tabloids and the boogie-woogie symbolizes the encroaching, hegemonic influence of the U.S., which may have given Jean-Luc Godard some ideas.
What really distinguishes Bitter Rice is De Santis’s commitment to formal dynamics in ways that marry the social drama to the crime drama. The first real indication that De Santis is flirting with something akin to magic realism comes when the farmhands distribute wide-brimmed hats to the women for protection from the sun; the ensuing scene plays out with a plethora of hats spinning endlessly through the air in the background of shots, eternally aloft, as a chorus of women sing in unison about their work in the rice fields. The image has an unreal, almost storybook quality that threatens to sentimentalize hard labor. A scene in the film’s midsection where Walter dances with Silvana a second time, leading to a violent confrontation with Marco, is a master-level study in cinematic choreography, as the camera and the characters together make precisely-executed movements and the editorial rhythm builds to a fevered pace. As the mondine band together to protect themselves by going to work despite heavy rain–missed days in the fields will keep them working longer, putting their harvest contracts back home at risk–Silvana instead sneaks off with Walter, leading to the strongest and most harrowing sequence in Bitter Rice: Silvana teases Walter by poking at him with a long, slender branch; he grabs it away and starts whipping her with it in a scene that descends into a violent rape.
The film cuts immediately to measured, evocative shots of the women working in the downpour, with Otello Martelli’s high-contrast cinematography lending their faces a stark, severe look. The blankets tented over their heads suggest religious drama; as one of their ranks falls ill, the others attend to her in way that, photographed from a crane looking down, resembles the petals of a flower closing gently around the ailing woman. There’s a tremendous sense of beauty and fellowship here that nonetheless alienates the traumatized and needy Silvana, who shows up only when the group is already rallying around one of its own. The sequence culminates in a tracking shot showing Francesca carrying the sick mondina, a group of weeping women falling in line behind her, as Silvana runs clumsily alongside them in parallel, stumbling and falling into a ditch, her isolation and despair complete. The last we see of her in this scene, she is alone in the frame, staggering away from the camera while Walter watches, unperturbed, from the safety of a reverse-shot edit.
The sexual politics are a touch dubious but not out of the ordinary for films of this era. It’s hard to shake the feeling that De Santis and his co-writer Carlo Lizzani are scolding Silvana for her regard for American culture as well as punishing her for licentiousness. Feminist readings center on Francesca, who is intelligent enough to eventually see through Walter’s manipulative, controlling routine–it’s the implication that she is a piece of property that is his to give away that drives her finally to action at the climax. Yet if De Santis is more condescending to Silvana’s character, he is also strongly empathetic with her. The camera evokes sympathy for her even during her humiliation, tracking along with her as she moves through the rice fields, going in close as she begins to comprehend the mess she’s made during the film’s slaughterhouse showdown. Mangano’s performance isn’t technically accomplished, but it is stirring nonetheless; you can read the moral epiphany on her face, and you can see that it absolutely wrecks her. And there’s the key–beyond the sex, the guns, and the jewels, Bitter Rice is anchored by its fierce convictions about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Mangano’s downfall isn’t so much her sexuality as it is her selfishness and avarice. Walter’s real criminality is the scheme he hatches to steal the stored rice that’s meant for distribution to the mondine. And De Santis’s accomplishment isn’t the debasement of neorealism some regarded it as–it’s a combination of humanism, technical skill, and straight-up showmanship serving a timeless story of class- and gender-based exploitation. As a political tract,Bitter Rice lacked purity. As cinema, its head-spinning melange of social commentary, romantic melodrama, heist picture, and, yes, shimmying movie musical is crystalline.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Bitter Rice should go some way towards raising De Santis’s profile in the U.S. (where neorealism is generally taught along the Rossellini-De Sica axis), even though extra features are scanty and the HD transfer is solid but unspectacular. Criterion’s liner notes are unusually vague when it comes to the provenance of this master, averring only that a “new high-definition digital transfer” was created from the “original camera negative.” Criterion’s Lee Kline is credited as the transfer supervisor, though the grading was performed in Rome by the Digital Factory at Cinecittà Studios. The resulting 1.33:1, 1080p presentation is attractively silvery and low-contrast–maybe a mite too low-contrast, as there’s a flatness to some shots that threatens to smooth out details completely, particularly in the highlights. Even with the restricted dynamic range, the picture has a pleasantly filmlike quality and it may underscore an aesthetic distance between the neorealist tradition and the more contrasty films noir out of Hollywood. There are some minor image imperfections (scratches, mainly), and a handful of shots, like one at the end where some of the women sprinkle rice on a body on the ground, exhibit notably less detail than the bulk of the film. The LPCM monaural audio is similarly OK. It’s remastered from an optical track and was substantially cleaned up, although surface noise is still quite audible and there’s an unavoidable brittleness to the sound, especially at higher volumes.
In a seven-minute interview originally recorded in 2002, De Santis’s co-writer Carlo Lizzani remembers the making of Bitter Rice, tracing its genesis to the director’s encounter with a large group of mondine departing for the rice fields at a train station in Turin on his way to Paris. Among other topics, Lizzani describes the film’s reliance on co-writers like Carrado Alvado to maintain the scenario’s working-class authenticity; the discovery and casting of journalist and former soccer player Vallone (who he calls “our Virgil”); and the decision to make Silvana Mangano’s role more prominent than originally planned.
Beefier scholarship can be found in “Giuseppi De Santis”, Lizzani’s 53-minute documentary on the filmmaker from 2008. Like the previous featurette, the image quality is strictly standard definition although it has been upscaled to 1080i, with some of the archival footage–including excerpts from interviews with De Santis himself–cropped on the top and bottom to 16×9. Generally, the program frames the director’s career in the context of Italian neorealism. It discusses neorealism’s political roots in the Italian resistance, the rarity of three-dimensional female characters in Italian cinema of the period, and De Santis’s status as “the Hollywood soul of Italian cinema,” as writer Steve Della Casa puts it in a talking head. De Santis’s childhood in the central Italian city of Fondi is considered, as is the critical re-evaluation he underwent following a neorealist conference/retrospective at the 1974 Pesaro Film Festival and the politically-motivated ostracization from the film industry he faced in the last 20 years of his life. It turns out that De Santis wouldn’t make anything he didn’t believe in–and that’s why he’s seen here on screen, insisting that his unproduced projects should be considered alongside his finished work as crucial elements of his biography.
Before Krzysztof Kieslowski became the standard-bearer for the latter-day European art film with ravishing portraits of unspeakably beautiful women living their lives under unutterably mysterious circumstances, he was a gruff but adventurous chronicler, in both documentary and narrative films, of lives lived in the rather more drab surroundings of communist Poland. Well, money changes everything. It was the arrival of funding from Western sources that bestowed the gift of abstraction: Beginning with the internationally-celebrated The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, it made Kieslowski’s expressions of ennui beautiful. But in the 1980s, Kieslowski had less time for beauty. Continue reading
Harriet Andersson first appears on screen a little more than three minutes into Cries and Whispers. Sven Nykvist’s camera looks at her from across the room as her features twist and twitch in an extraordinary series of contortions. It’s a remarkable image because it so compassionately and clearly conveys the human condition–the spirit’s status as long-term resident of a fleshy domicile with its particular shortcomings and irreversible dilapidations. It’s also almost immediately identifiable as an Ingmar Bergman image. That’s not just because Andersson is a Bergman stalwart, or because the European aspect ratio and the vintage texture and film grain help identify the time and place of the picture’s making. No, you can feel in this shot the cameraman’s patience, the actor’s single-mindedness, and the director’s clinical interest in her character’s experience. And at this point in his career, a woman in distress and under the microscope was Bergman’s métier.
Like Persona before it, Cries and Whispers was one of those films that seemed to throw Bergman’s vision into focus. In the intervening years, he had made a loose trilogy–featuring most notably Hour of the Wolf, his closest approach to an out-and-out horror movie–in which Max Von Sydow was a kind of surrogate for Bergman himself. He had just made an English-language film, The Touch, with Elliott Gould opposite Bibi Andersson, that he considered a failure. But Cries and Whispers revolves around four women, and there was something about Bergman’s women that opened up the psychological frontiers of his films. They highlighted the generosity of a man who loved women as well as the judgments of a man who seemed to consider them troublesome. That is to say, while Bergman was sympathetic to the roiling internal lives of the women he depicted, he was pessimistic about their ability to engage in genuinely affectionate, fulfilling relationships either among themselves or with the men in their lives.
Thus, the cast of characters inhabiting Cries and Whispers is a fundamentally unhappy bunch. Agnes (Andersson) is dying in an old lakeside manor. Her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), are in attendance at her deathbed along with Anna (Kari Sylwan), the family’s devoted servant. Men are relegated to the periphery: There’s David (Erland Josephson), the family doctor; Joakim (Henning Moritzen), Maria’s hapless, cuckolded spouse; Fredrik (Georg Årlin), Karin’s stiff husband; and Isak (Anders Ek), the skeptical local priest. Death, of course, is the linchpin of the story. The first faces we see are those of clocks, underscoring the passage of time in staccato increments and reminding the viewer that, even as you sit in a chair watching one of Bergman’s woman die, the moment of your own demise is drawing inexorably nearer. Agnes expires at almost exactly the picture’s halfway point. Arriving as it does, with sunlight falling gently across her face after long, painful-sounding passages of tortured gasping and retching, her death comes as a relief–that oft-promised release from earthly suffering.
The film’s tripartite structure pivots on Bergmanesque interludes depicting aspects of the inner lives of the women Agnes leaves behind. In a formal flourish designed to draw attention to itself, Bergman bookends each of these segments with two close-ups on the face of an actress, lighted in the first from one side and in the second from the other, gazing directly into the camera before the image dips to red. While their faces remain on screen, a faint whispering can be heard on the soundtrack, like ghostly echoes from years past, or conspiratorial murmurs from unseen spectators. These images signal passages akin to flashbacks or dream sequences, though they aren’t quite either of those. They’re more like visions, or psychic projections from the minds of their characters, and they are quite particular to the films of Bergman. In the first, Maria remembers her seduction of David and her hapless spouse’s pathetic suicide attempt the morning after. In the second, Karin expresses her loathing for her own husband and cuts up her genitals to ward off his sexual attentions. And in a third, Anna attends to the dead woman, who asks first to see Karin, then Maria. Each sister rejects Agnes in her own way, leaving her in the care of Anna, who undresses and holds Agnes across her lap in the film’s most famous image–not just a maternal idyll, but a softly-lit Pietà. (Early on, Agnes remembers her own mother as “gentle and beautiful and alive” yet sometimes “coolly dismissive or painfully cruel.”) From this moment of unbearable tenderness, Bergman segues coolly and pointedly to a scene of awful people being awful, as Maria and Karin and their respective husbands sit around the house, rating Agnes’s funeral “tolerable” and offering the newly-jobless Anna the smallest possible token of their consideration. Only Joakim, the sap among this group, appears to have any impulse towards decency.*
To the world at large, Cries and Whispers represented the apotheosis of Bergman’s career up to that point. Many of his trademark concerns are foregrounded, from the presence of family and the absence of God to pettiness in human relations and the promise of death. Certainly Cries and Whispers was one of his showiest films. Nykvist created images so vivid–the red backgrounds like blood smearing the canvas, the black funereal garb like cancerous blotches on the frame–that they have a nearly physical effect. Then there’s the Gothic quality of the whole affair, an old-dark-house flavour of spookiness, that paradoxically lightens the mood by hinting at fantasy elements. Anna, for instance, is disturbed by the squalling of an infant. She wanders the house, bathed in soft moonlight, asking, “Can’t you hear it?” before finding Maria and Karin staring, immobile and mute. Bergman’s ease with this kind of staging–introducing straight-up supernatural elements to psychological drama–made me wonder if horror films of the era, specifically Polanski’s Repulsion and especially Rosemary’s Baby, had served as an influence. I was unsurprised to learn that he had attempted to cast Mia Farrow in the role of Anna.
Additionally, of the works Bergman called his “chamber films,” Cries and Whispers has the most famous chambers. It was his fourth colour film and the first to really leverage the impact of highly colour-coordinated images. Bergman said at the time that he had always imagined the interior of the soul to be red, and on screen, the uniformly crimson rooms provide a suspiciously sanguine, almost organic environment for the women who move through them in dresses of white and black. (One big exception: in the dinner scene where Liv Ullmann puts the moves on the doc, she is wearing a lacy red gown displaying a ridiculous amount of cleavage.) It’s worth noting, too, as film theorist Bruce Kawin does in his Bergman-focused tome Mindscreen, that red is the colour you see when you close your eyes against a bright light. Just as Stan Brakhage took cues from what he called “closed-eye vision,” Bergman’s images seem to allude to light, the eyes, and the body itself.
Yet in some ways the striking visuals, the elements of a ghost story, and the insistent religious intimations obscure the fact that, at its narrative heart, Cries and Whispers is just a story of people who are desperate for connection. Both Maria and Karin are in apparently loveless marriages, and their relationship as sisters is long frosted-over. After Agnes dies, Maria approaches Karen to break the ice. “It’s so strange how we never touch, how we only make small talk,” she says. “Why won’t you be my friend?” Karin flinches, insisting first, “I can’t stand to be touched,” and then, by extension, “I don’t want you to be kind to me.” A burst of rancour somehow leads to reconciliation, culminating in another scene in which Karin and Maria, framed against a blank, soul-red backdrop, embrace and coo at each other, caressing each other’s faces and gazing into each other’s eyes, almost like lovers. What they’re actually saying isn’t important–their lips move, but the soundtrack is a solo cello piece by Bach. It has the earmarks of a breakthrough, at least until we reach the film’s denouement, in which Maria’s behaviour is pointedly aloof. “You touched me,” insists Karin. “Don’t you remember that?” And Maria responds, with an impeccable chill, “I don’t recall every stupid thing I’ve done.” In that moment, Karin’s humiliation is complete; despite her imperiousness in the face of Maria’s ditzy-redhead routine, Maria retains the upper hand.
What of Anna and Agnes? They are each presented as simpler women–unmarried, religious, and content with their lot. Anna is a study in selflessness, praying to the God who took her daughter from her and left her to sleep every night near an empty crib before leaving her bedroom to attend affectionately to the dying Agnes. The two women’s shared faith manifests in tenderness; when Agnes is inconsolable, Anna climbs into bed with her and offers her breast. It’s an unconditional, maternal love, and so Bergman places it on a pedestal and wonders that such a thing could exist. Nor is Agnes’s faith in question. The priest who prays at her bedside following her death chooses words that betray ambivalence, urging her to advocate for those left behind before a possible God in a potential afterlife. “Her faith was stronger than mine,” he offers afterward by way of explanation and, perhaps, apology.
Bergman is lauded for his complex female characters, and it’s true that these women are layered and multidimensional in a way that makes possible the exceptional performances at the film’s core. The conniving adulteress is fundamentally a stereotype, though, as is the frigid wife. That both women rebel against their husbands lends the film a second-wave feminist frisson, but the charge is mitigated by Bergman’s fundamentally sexualized conception of that rebellion. Maria rebels by fucking a doctor; Karin rebels by making herself unfuckable. Bergman’s approval is reserved for Anna, who earns it by functioning selflessly, unconditionally, and chastely (unless you buy into the sometimes-mooted notion that she and Agnes are lovers) as not merely the loyal servant, but also the dedicated mother figure Agnes never had. Agnes, meanwhile, seems to have been an unassuming woman in life as well as death. Her own memories betray no hint of regret, yearning, or sexual life. Instead, she embraces the pleasure of a day spent with her sisters–that is, in the company of women she believes to be warm and loving whom Bergman has revealed to be anything but. Complicating the film’s status as portraiture is Bergman’s claim, recanted decades later as “a lie for the media,” that Cries and Whispers was actually about his mother. At any rate, for all that is laudable about the way Bergman writes women, the characters clearly represent a man’s vantage on womanhood, with all the privilege that suggests.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may take a man like Bergman to coax a performance like this from a woman like Ullmann, who comes across as sadistic and at the same time completely lost inside her own head. However mean is her Maria, there’s a helplessness to her sociopathy that obscures its nature; she would have made a hell of a femme fatale in somebody’s noir. Bergman leads up to the moment of Karin’s self-mutilation by having the camera watch from a comfortable distance, as she spends a full minute of screentime undressing, shedding layer upon layer of late 19th-century dignity and propriety–black funeral dress, petticoats, corset and corset cover, chemise, and finally shoes and stockings–before finally donning the nightgown that allows easier access to her nether regions. The scene plays as titillation, then provocation, and finally personal tragedy, with the viewer placed in the position of voyeur throughout. That’s Bergman’s critical instinct as a director: not only does he manage to make physical suffering feel real, he also concentrates emotional suffering on screen in a way that inspires real reflection and genuine, almost physical, discomfort in viewers. Only on repeated viewings do Agnes’s final, desperate cries take on their full weight and resonance in the Bergman corpus, waking Maria, Karin, and Anna from their silent, perfectly-composed tableau in death’s antechamber. Anna’s hands, thrusting up from the bottom of the frame, press helplessly at Agnes’s face and shoulders, and Agnes calls out, as Maria buries her face in her hands, “I can’t take it! Can’t anyone help me? I can’t take it! Help me!” Talk about horror–Cries and Whispers may not be Bergman’s best film, but it’s almost certainly his most visceral. The better you know its mysteries, the more power they seem to hold. You begin to wonder if it really is a haunted film; you feel its cruel pricks in the dark of your soul.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Cries and Whispers was one of Bergman’s undeniable commercial successes, and it remains a cornerstone of his filmography–especially in the U.S., where its images of ticking clocks and sad women, handsomely photographed, fretting in period garb, became a recognized emblem of arthouse cinema. I first saw it “dubbed into English by the original cast under the direction of Ingmar Bergman” on an old Warner Home Video tape I bought in the early-1980s from an indie rental-store owner who I’m pretty sure was glad to get the thing off his shelf. I saw it again on LaserDisc, and DVD, and nothing compares to Criterion’s magnificent new Blu-ray. Suddenly I’m anxious to see it on 35mm.
Oh, sure, previous home video versions showed you what Bergman was getting at. But the real brilliance of the visuals shines in this 1.66:1, 1080p presentation, which finally offers the colour gamut to preserve the many shadings of red present in the frame, from the dried-blood quality of the dimmest scenes to the blazing, fully-saturated glare of brighter shots. Shadow detail is exceptional, a bare twinkle of film grain just visible in even the blackest sections of the filmed image. If I had to register a complaint, it’s that I noted some colour banding in some of the fades from dark red to black that a more consistently maxed-out data rate might’ve mitigated. I do wonder why the folks in charge of the Bergman archives bother to thread up camera negative on a machine that scans at 2K, not 4K, but the results are certainly compelling. Could the grain texture captured here be stronger still, and more organic? Probably. (Will Criterion have something new to sell us when UHD Blu-ray Discs finally hit the market? Maybe.) Still, it’s hard to imagine that a higher-resolution version could improve on this version in anything like the same way this version improves on the DVD. The picture is not simply more detailed–it has been timed to be brighter and warmer in a way that makes better emotional sense of the imagery. Of all Bergman’s films in the Criterion Collection, this is the one that benefits the most from a high-definition upgrade.
Transferred from the original mag track in uncompressed mono and lovingly remastered to eliminate a litany of clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum, the Swedish-language audio has been scrubbed remarkably clean and exhibits decent dynamic range without losing the audible hallmarks of a film of this vintage. Although the included lossy English dub is comparatively harsher and treblier in tone, I have to admit there’s something even more hair-raising about hearing Harriet Andersson’s pitiable wailing without the abstraction of a language barrier to soften the impact; this is one of those cases where a dubbed track may have genuine merit.
Extra features are compelling and fairly thorough but not overwhelming. First up is 34 minutes of behind-the-scenes material sourced from an HD-upscaled standard definition (probably PAL) video transfer that exhibits some interlacing artifacts. Footage from the location shoot, which took place at a manor 35 miles outside of Stockholm on the shore of Lake Mälaren, graces the piece along with some shots of the film’s official press conference. Though Cries and Whispers proper has no audio commentary track, film historian (and Criterion’s go-to Bergman expert) Peter Cowie does his level best to make up for it here with an informative yakker discussing specifics of the production.
Cowie additionally conducts a 20-minute HD interview with Harriet Andersson about her work in Cries and Whispers that touches on Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander as well. She reveals that she based Agnes’s wheezes and dry heaves on the death throes suffered by her father during a terminal illness in the 1950s. When Cowie asks her about a statement attributed to Bergman that the red walls of the manor where the movie takes place were meant as a metaphor for the womb, she smiles. “Yeah, he said so,” she agrees. “You know, he always says things. And the next day he didn’t mean it. There was another thing with him–he loved to lie. But he didn’t like it when other people lied. But really, he liked to make [up] small stories.” Her memories of Bergman are affectionate, if less than awestruck. For instance, she takes issue with the scene depicting Maria’s husband’s failed attempt at seppuku. “For me,” she says, “that is a little too funny.”
The meatiest supplement is a holdover from the DVD: a 52-minute Swedish television interview conducted circa 1999 featuring an 82-year-old Bergman and a 75-year-old Erland Josephson, who plays the film’s frisky doctor. Bergman chuckles aloud when challenged by journalist Malou von Sivers about his status as a negligent father and husband, but does own up to his poor behaviour. “I really was a rat and a cheat and a liar in many ways,” he admits. “I behaved like an absolute bastard.” He adds, somewhat cryptically, that he was able to rid himself of a guilty conscience: “I could never get rid of my feelings of guilt, but as I got rid of my guilty conscience I decided to become the foremost in the world at my profession.” While Bergman never came across as a humble man, he definitely knew how to give an interview. Other subjects include his devotion to his last wife, Ingrid, and his abiding love for his mother.
I’m of two minds on “On Solace,” a 13-minute video essay by Kogonada that is exquisitely assembled, using splitscreen effects to identify mirrored images and make other connections within Cries and Whispers itself. The monotone, nearly robotic voiceover is a distraction, however, verging on self-parody. Also on board is Criterion’s usual “Introduction by director Ingmar Bergman,” drawn from a series of short interviews with Bergman Island director Marie Nyreröd conducted in 2001, as well as a two-minute theatrical trailer narrated by Bergman in English. (Of note to pedants and copy editors: he translates the title, correctly, as Whispers and Cries.) In the accompanying booklet essay, “Love and Death,” University of Cambridge Professor Emma Wilson starts from the beginning–Ingmar Bergman’s widely-quoted, erotically-charged childhood memory of being locked inside a hospital morgue with a nude female corpse whom he noticed breathing–and from there develops ideas about “themes of mortality and maternal eroticism” in Cries and Whispers, bolstering her argument by quoting Bergman’s own descriptions of the film and its characters. As far as I can tell, this is Wilson’s first contribution to the Criterion Collection, and it shouldn’t be her last.
*The NEW YORK TIMES ran a review of Cries and Whispers by Ronald Friedland that advances probably the most twisted misreading of a film I’ve come across since Stephen Hunter claimed Starship Troopers was a Nazi fantasy. Under the headline “If We Understood Bergman, We’d Stone Him,” Friedland describes Agnes as “sentimental, self-deceiving” and “parasitic,” while condemning Anna’s “exploitation” of her death. “Anna wants Agnes dead,” he writes. “She wills it.” Leave it to the paper of record to gaze upon a family this fucked-up and be inspired to libel the hired help. return
Near the beginning of Angels and Insects, our romantic protagonist courts the object of his very sexual affections in odd fashion. That scene, which involves a veritable swarm of butterflies and moths crawling across the woman’s clothing and skin, is a good indicator of the film’s ambitions. Putting a Victorian estate under the microscope, Angels and Insects postulates that this family unit, with sons, daughters and servants all tending slavishly to the needs of a bloated matriarch, is something less sophisticated and more distasteful than your average backyard ant farm.
William Adamson (Mark Rylance) is an outsider among the blueblooded Alabasters, the family whose patriarch, Sir Harald (Jeremy Kemp), rescued the young naturalist from a disastrous shipwreck. He is allowed to live with the Alabasters as Harald’s assistant, and swiftly falls under the spell of the oldest daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit). This courtship among the insects is the film’s most direct metaphor, and its most satisfying conceit. As William confesses his love to Eugenia, he looses upon her what first seem to be the world’s loveliest butterflies. But soon, Eugenia is beset by the unsightly male counterparts to the beautiful females, which crawl across her body, drawn by female pheromones.
The trauma of that experience isn’t enough to derail the romance, which unfolds to the chagrin of Eugenia’s brother, Edgar (Douglas Henshall), who considers William an unfit suitor. Edgar’s sneering insults grow more and more provocative, but William resists his verbal exhortations to physical battle and marries Eugenia. His assimilation into the family is thus made literal, and Harald seems rather fond of the young man — but Edgar won’t let up, spouting continually about how little William knows of the world, and the significance of his improper breeding.
This socio-scientific Darwinism is as much a key to Angels and Insects as are the butterfly and ant-farm metaphors (when Eugenia proves herself to be less than an ideal lover, William bides his time with a detailed study of an ant colony on the estate). For the first hour or so, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, gamely tracking all of the asides, double entendres, and allegorical declamations. Philip Haas’s screenplay tries to cram all the thematic concerns of its source material (the novella Morpho Eugenia, by retro-Victorian scribe A.S. Byatt) into the two-hour space of a feature film, but it’s a little much.
Those concerns spill over from the story and dialogue into the film’s visual grammar, as well. While the overall production design is sumptuous and striking, the movie’s infatuation with its own color sceme grows tiring. For instance, when Kensit turns up in one of her show-stopping gowns, an unlikely peacock blue fringed in blood red, the effect is an imperfect distillation of the Peter Greenaway Effect — decidely garish in appearance, but relatively graceless in execution. More effective for my money is the less specific sense of dread that infuses the proceedings, especially in the scenes leading up to the marriage of the unlikely lovers.
So maybe it’s because the film wore me out in its first section that I found the second half fairly tedious. It’s mostly a waiting game. We know that Kristin Scott Thomas (she plays Matty Crampton, the family tutor) gets billing above Kensit, so her role will soon become prominent. The ad campaign has assured us that there’s a “startling” revelation in the final reels, but the punch is telegraphed across most of the movie. And, of course, we know that something’s got to give — and it does.
That having been said, the movie does have its pleasures. The performances are decidedly less mannered than we’ve come to expect from costume drama, and Rylance and Henshall make deliciously credible intellectual adversaries. I’ll even go out on a limb for Kensit, whose vaguely unsettling concupiscent charms have never before been put to such perfect use. The cinematography is lush and surprising, and the atmosphere is boldly creepy.
The opening credits sequence, which flash back to Adamson and a troupe of Amazonian dancers frolicking in the firelight, is more honestly sexual than anything that follows, and we get the sense that he was never happier than he was among the natives (as if to underscore the point, the titular letters spelling out Angels cross the screen in front of the dancers). This sequence, beautifully edited by the director’s wife, Belinda Haas, helps us understand the libidinous freedom that Adamson craves, even as he takes a luscious wife in an ostensible paradise. While the inhabitants of a less seething Victorian tableaux might negotiate apparently charmed paths to a satisfying but unlikely happy ending, we are made to grow more and more certain that the only resolution to the Victorian dilemma postulated by Angels and Insects is escape.