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Cries and Whispers

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.*

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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.

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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.

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*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

Gojira, Gilliam, and R.I.P. Gordon Willis

Godzilla left me more or less cold. I could barely find enough to say about the latest Hollywood franchise reboot to fill up a Letterboxd diary entry. And yet smart people waxed rhapsodic over the damned thing. What am I missing? I see a film with a few exceptionally clever moments and technically brilliant CG work that never finds its narrative footing. Not as scary as War of the Worlds or as much fun as Jurassic Park, it doesn’t measure up to even second-tier Spielberg. And as gloomfests go, it doesn’t squeeze the cheer out of the room anywhere near as effectively as a Christopher Nolan pic.  I didn’t dislike it, exactly, largely because it does many things right. It even gets some of the hard stuff right. (Godzilla as hero was totally the way to go this time around.) But it gets some easy things wrong — first and foremost by putting the single blandest character in its homo sapiens line-up front and center — and never works up a real head of steam.

Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen
Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen in Manhattan

R.I.P. Gordon Willis, ASC. The cinematographer behind the camera for The Godfather, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, and more has passed. He got that dim, shadowy look for The Godfather by deliberately underexposing film and not pushing it quite enough in processing to make up the difference. (“A lot of cameramen work to increase the quality of the image,” he said at the time, “but in this specific case I’m working to decrease it.”) You can see much of his finest work on really good Blu-ray versions — the latest Godfather reissues and the Woody Allen films are top-drawer — but the indignity of a revisionist HD transfer of All the President’s Men that he described as “all fucked up” tarnishes his legacy. (“You call these [home video] guys, it’s like talking to a head on a stick,” he memorably told Jeffrey Wells.)

Terry Gilliam is making his Don Quixote movie again. This per Variety, which reports that casting has begun anew. (Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor were set to star in the previous incarnation of this project, and of course Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp were attached once upon a time.) Good luck, old buddy.

Those Ennio Morricone concerts in New York and Los Angeles have been canceled.

Ullmann. Bergman.

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman
Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman

Autumn Sonata

By 1978, Ingmar Bergman was in trouble. The director had fled his native Sweden two years earlier after an arrest on charges of tax evasion. (He would be completely exonerated in 1979, but his mood was no doubt grim until then.) He visited Paris and Los Angeles, then settled in Munich, where he would shoot his first English-language film, the 1920s Berlin-set The Serpent’s Egg, a Dino de Laurentiis co-production co-starring David Carradine and Bergman stalwart Liv Ullmann. The Serpent’s Egg was a box-office flop in Sweden, a critical and commercial failure internationally, and most of all a big artistic disappointment for Bergman himself–a decided stumble for a director riding high on the success of 1970s titles like the harrowing Cries and Whispers, which enjoyed huge success in the U.S. in the unlikely care of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and the audience-friendly The Magic Flute. At the same time, Bergman was embarking on what would prove to be an unhappy tenure at Munich’s Residenztheater, where he managed to mount eleven productions before being fired in 1981. In this turbulent context, the very Bergmanesque Autumn Sonata can be seen as a kind of comfort film–a deliberate return to roots. Someone once described it as “Bergman does Bergman,” and the gag stuck. Bergman himself eventually quoted the remark, calling it “witty but unfortunate. For me, that is.”

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Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

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The death of a great artist is easier to take, for obvious reasons, when that artist’s body of work is more or less complete. Robert Altman, for instance, died after making a pretty good musical and before he could start work on a new, off-the-wall project. But Ingmar Bergman more or less retired back in 1982, upon the release of Fanny and Alexander, his lengthy but highly entertaining account of two very eventful childhoods. It’s not that I’m less sorry to see him go, exactly, but that the body of work left behind feels intact — like a journey that’s reached an at-least-somewhat-satisfactory destination — rather than simply incomplete.

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Fanny and Alexander

798_fanny-och-alexander.jpgFanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s ostensible valedictory film, is most clearly and obviously about the pleasures of family — even the farting, adulterous and shame-faced family that’s so often exposed here. In that respect, I suppose, it’s an old man’s film. Bergman may identify, to some degree, with the matriarch of the Ekdahls, who is seen early on gazing out her window as her relatives stumbling noisily through the snow outside toward home. She murmurs happily, “Here comes my family.” What surprises, then, is the way the story becomes a sort of fairy-tale-cum-horror-movie – this is a ghost story whose subjects are the living and the dead, magic and imagination and the nature of God.

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