Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Cries & Whispers (1973)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

It would tempting to rename Ingmar Bergman's 1973 classic Cries & Whispers "Secrets & Lies," if Mike Leigh hadn't made a classic by that name 23 years later. The film follows the reunion of three sisters - Karin (Ingrid Thulin), Maria (Liv Ullman), and Agnes (Harriet Andersson) - who have come together because Agnes is dying. Rather than spending their final moments with each other remembering the good times, deeply-held resentments and secrets boil over, and this supremely messed-up family tears into one another.

Though Bergman had been a much-celebrated auteur for nearly two decades in his native Sweden and throughout Europe, Cries & Whispers was his first film to earn him widespread acclaim in the United States. Not that his films were unknown here - Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Seventh Seal (1957) were both well-received films by critics, and The Virgin Spring (1960) was the inspiration for Wes Craven's debut horror film The Last House on the Left. But Cries & Whispers was almost immediately hailed a masterpiece, and today it remains one of his highest-regarded films.


It's certainly one of his most visually-striking, thanks to Sven Nykvist's Oscar-winning cinematography and Marik Vos-Lundh's sets and costumes. All of these elements make remarkable use of color, which Bergman uses as a coding motif for his film.

More after the jump.
The most striking color that Bergman and his crew utilize in this film is crimson. Its a color that bonds all three sisters together, infiltrating their lives symbolically in different ways. First and foremost, it's a color that's all over their childhood home, particularly in the drawing room in which Karin and Maria are first introduced:


Almost every element of the room is red, with the women's white dresses standing in stark contrast to the red interior. Red becomes the color of memory, as it links the sisters to their old home and, thus, their childhood together.

But if red unites them, it does not bond them. Karin and Maria, in particular, have a very thorny relationship with one another. Their selfishness and pettiness prevents them both from spending any meaningful time with Agnes as her condition deteriorates. The only one who does take care of Agnes is Anna (Kari Sylwan), her deeply religious housemaid.


Note that, in this frame, there's red off to the margins, but it's the color white that dominates the frame. Anna has become Agnes' family and place of refuge. It's in Anna's embrace that she finds peace from her worsening illness.

Let's get back to the red, though. Bergman tells this story through a series of flashbacks, filling us in on the lives of each woman so that we may get a better understand of why they behave the way they do. And in all four cases (Anna gets a moment as well), there is something crimson that visually ties them back to their house, and thus to their childhood.

Karin is the haughtiest of the three sisters, cold and unfeeling toward almost everyone she meets. It comes as no surprise, then, that her husband, Fredrik (Georg Årlin), is clinically distant from her, uncaring to the point of being hurtful. After Agnes' death, Fredrik wonders aloud if its appropriate to leave anything for Anna, even though (because?) Anna is standing directly in front of him. Karin, however, deep down is wounded by his harsh demeanor. She struggles with self-harm, including mutilating herself to drive Fredrik away. When she does this, she smears her blood across her face like warpaint.


In Karin's case, red becomes a symbol of her anger and oppression. She does everything in her power to get away from Fredrik, and yet she remains with him. There's no escaping her marriage, and as a result she suppresses herself, keeping all of her pain hidden.

Agnes' flashback features her attempting to appeal to her distant mother (Ullman again), who showed more affection for Karin and Maria than she did Agnes. The one memory that does stand out in Agnes' mind was seeing her mother in the drawing room, and having a small moment together.


This is the only flashback among the three sisters that directly references their home. Again, there's the presence of the color white as well, giving their mother an angelic quality (this will be important in the film's epilogue, too). Unlike the sanguine quality of Karin's flashback, here the color red is warm and inviting. It's not a symbol of frustration, but rather of fondness and acceptance. This was one of the few moments in her life that Agnes felt a connection to her mother, and there's an inviting quality to the way  the color red is used here.

Maria's flashback, though, finds yet another use for the color red. In one of the film's standout scenes, Maria is alone with a doctor, David (Erland Josephson), with whom she is having an affair.


Her red dress, coupled with her red hair, makes Maria a symbol of lust, desire, and infidelity. Her conversation with the doctor then leads to a long close-up of Maria's face, while David explains why their affair can continue no longer.

*Best Shot*

Even here, she's got a reddish hue to her skin. There's no escaping her family or her past, even as she's finding respite from her husband in another man.

And, by the way, her husband, Joakim (Henning Moretzen)? Red seeps into his life, as well, as Maria's infidelities and disinterest in him leads him to attempt suicide.


When the film finally reaches a brief flashback for Anna, she's still in the house. In a way, she's a specter of the sibling's mother; haunting the house as a caretaker, only instead of showering Maria and Karin with attention, she gives Agnes the love and care she's longed for her entire life. She's given a brief portrait in front of a red background, associating her with "home," which is what she provides for Agnes.


Without a doubt, Cries & Whispers is a visually-sumptuous feast of a film. What makes it stand out, though, is the way that Nykvist and Bergman use the color red to make different connections between the characters, both individually and as one royally messed-up family.

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