Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, known for chilly, chilling drama such as "The Seventh Seal," "Autumn Sonata," and "Persona," enjoyed critical and commercial success States-side during the late-'60s and early-'70s. Back then, film patrons actually cared about getting "serious" mileage out of their time spent in a movie theatre. Alas, nowadays, a film like "Cries and Whispers" would be cast aside, buried by box-office behemoths and left to struggle to gain an audience in small "art houses." It is to the American movie-goer's detriment that he/she has been molded by our sensorial culture into thinking that a movie should make its points either by pounding eyes and ears with loud noises and flashy cuts or by using "subtlety" that is noticeably unsubtle. My guess is that people who see "Cries and Whispers" for the first time will be shocked at how well an interior drama can play as a horror film and how real subtlety leaves the viewer guessing, wondering what exactly a filmmaker means to convey. "Cries and Whispers" is not Art because of its "artiness"; it is Art because of its "artfulness."
In "Cries and Whispers," Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (the talented and beautiful Liv Ullmann) take care of their dying sister, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) in their familial mansion. However, Karin and Maria care for Agnes only out of duty, not love. Anna (Kari Sylwan), the chambermaid, truly loves Agnes, devoting herself fully to the sick woman in order to compensate for the death of her own daughter. While waiting for Agnes to die, Karin and Maria seem to be putting their lives on hold. There's little interaction between any of the characters, and we get a sense of their psychological and emotional frigidity during flashbacks.
Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (one of the best cinematographers ever) show these flashbacks by using red "burnouts," a device so visually jarring and effective that the great Krzysztof Kieslowski would borrow the technique for his 1993 film "Blue" (yet another powerful European film about characters struggling with internalizing AND externalizing pain). During these flashbacks, we see the unhappy states of Karin and Maria's marriages, and perhaps they are at the country estate more to escape their husbands than for any other reason. After all, they can barely tolerate one another, and Karin, who has severe problems, even tells Maria and Agnes that she hates them.
In true European fashion, not much "happens" plotwise. Most European films do not busy themselves with plot, finding events less interesting than the way people respond to life and to each other. For example, Agnes's terminal illness has long been established before the beginning of the film, so thankfully, we don't have idiotic scenes of exposition where a doctor laboriously explains to the audience that Agnes is going to die. Bergman cuts right to the heart of the story.
Agnes's process of dying draws the three sisters together, but, oddly enough, the film is about life and how to live it. We see the ugly throes of physical pain through which Agnes suffers, and we see how the other two sisters really don't have it all that much better than her. Indeed, only Agnes, in her diary, recalls the joys possible in life.
"Cries and Whispers" is an interior drama, but it can play like a psychological horror story. Karin is so unbalanced (during her flashback, we see her mutilate herself in about as frightening a manner as possible) that we fear that she will commit some sort of violence against the other characters. Then there is the way that Bergman and Nykvist like to use long, unedited closeups that are especialy unnerving when the camera sits there, unmoving, observing Agnes writhing and screaming and breathing oddly.
Critics and cinephiles hold Bergman in such high regard because he shows pain in a manner so removed from conventional means that his films exist in their own sub-genre, the "Ingmar Bergman-style of minimalism." In most films, we see actors express anguish by throwing a fit. In "Cries and Whispers" and other Bergman works, the actors subsume their emotions, and the tension created by their emotional repression leads to heights of unbearable unease. In a typical Hollywood product, such tension would be broken by a fistfight or a gunshot. In a Bergman film, that tension is never really resolved, leaving the viewer thinking about ways the characters can find peace long after the movie ends.
Bergman's use of sound stands in stark contrast to modern soundtracks that are filled wall to wall with music. For most of the film, no music is played except for a few lonely bells jingling and once, when someone's playing the piano. The lack of music emphasizes the stillness, the loneliness of each character and the atmosphere of the house--it's a mansion, but it feels so dreadfully small, confined.
Near the end of the film, Karin and Maria have a conversational breakthrough, and a melancholy cello plays over the voices of the two sisters finally reaching out to one another, talking as they have not talked in years. The spareness of the sonic landscape punctuates the hollowness, the neediness of the characters. How's that for subtext?
Though Criterion states that the film is framed at 1.66:1 (anamorphic widescreen), the video image of the DVD looks closer to 1.75:1, another common European ratio. The print looks very good, but you get a slight feeling that the image isn't as stable as one would like. Colors are both vivid and petrifyingly still at the same time. While flesh tones sometimes present some problems, film grain has been kept to a minimum for a thirty-year-old movie. The usual specks and a little print dust appear, but you won't feel the dire urge to demand a refund or anything like that. I am curious, though, as to why I twice saw "reel change" circles in the upper right hand corner...
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Swedish soundtrack sounds surprisingly clean and strong for a mono track. (Perhaps this is due to the fact that Bergman keeps things simple, relying primarily on dialogue to carry his film.) The DVD's producers have done a great job in keeping the audio stable and free of hiss. During the few instances where Bergman does use music, it doesn't sound like only the center channel is doing all the work. The crisp, delicate work of the audio impressed me.
You may opt to watch the film with a DD 1.0 English dub (done mainly by the original cast under Bergman's supervision), and there are defeatable English subtitles.
The disc only has one real extra, a fifty-two minute interview with Ingmar Bergman and one of his long-time collaborators, Erland Josephson. (Josephson is a member of the cast of "Cries and Whispers" and many other Bergman films.) "Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love (with Erland Josephson)," broadcast on Swedish television in 2000, covers much of the legendary filmmaker's career. While not quite a thorough examination/summation of his works, you do begin to develop an appreciation for the seriousness of the Bergman's approach to life.
Both Bergman and Josephson also discuss many personal things as well. For example, both men fathered many children with many different women, and both men own up to being less-than-perfect fathers. However, Bergman thanks his children's mothers for never speaking ill of him. He's also grateful to his wife, Ingrid, for once inviting all of his nine children to his birthday party. This birthday gathering has become a tradition of sorts, and Bergman marvels at the fact that his children like each other despite their separate childhoods. (Odd to think that Bergman lived such a messy life...after all, his father was the chaplain to the royal family of Sweden!)
(The program arrives on DVD in a 1.33:1 frame, with DD 2.0 stereo sound, and in English and subtitled Swedish.)
In determining a rating for a DVD's extras, usually, quantity counts almost as much as quality. How do I grade Criterion's DVD release of "Cries and Whispers," then? Given how reluctant Mr. Bergman is to grant interviews and how he has come to reject cinema, perhaps it is a bit of a miracle that this TV interview exists. Also, knowing that the people at Criterion usually take the utmost care to give viewers as much access to a film's production as possible, I trust that there are reasons for a lack of a theatrical trailer or an audio commentary (though I do have to wonder why Peter Cowie, who did commentaries for Criterion's releases of Bergman's "Autumn Sonata" and "The Seventh Seal," did not do a commentary for "Cries and Whispers"). The hour-long interview provides far more material of substantive value than any of those lousy "making of" featurettes that the big studios slap together for promotional purposes and then rehash on their DVDs. Therefore, I'm going to give the "Cries and Whispers" DVD a "six" rating for its extras.
Oddly enough, Criterion did not include color bars as an extra on this disc, despite the film's important thematic use of color.
The glossy gatefold insert provides chapter listings, primary cast and crew credits, information about the DVD's production, and a mini-essay by the aforementioned Peter Cowie, a film historian specializing in Scandanavian cinema.
Mr. Bergman, now in his 80s, has not directed a film for some time now. Why? Oddly enough, this master of cinema has seemingly disavowed the medium, preferring to direct theatrical productions instead (though he continues to write screenplays for TV and film, some of which have been directed by one-time lover Liv Ullmann). Apparently, he thinks that film is a medium of artifice, that the control one exercises over a movie places unnatural restrictions on thoughts and feelings. Meanwhile, the spontaneity of theatre allows people to perform without a net, and the danger of theatre brings to light more "truths" than films do in Bergman's eye.
I guess it takes someone to find such critical faults with movies to make great cinema. To know that someone can make films of such weight and depth is to know that hacks like Michael Bay are a waste of space. (Yes, I know that The Criterion Collection includes Bay's "The Rock" and "Armageddon," but the appearance of those two titles in Criterion's catalog prompts the loudest "WTFs" from DVD-philes...) "Cries and Whispers" must be viewed at a time when the viewer feels soberly reflective about life, ready to confront everyday horrors more terrifying than anything you'll see in "The Exorcist."