Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: Cries and Whispers (1972)

Time for a weird entry in the Oscar Film Journal....

Today I'll be attempting to dissect Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-nominated period drama Cries and Whispers, released in 1972 but oddly recognized by the Academy as a 1973 film.  What are they, the Grammys??

Anyway, Cries and Whispers centers around three 19th century sisters and their housekeeper.  The eldest(?) Agnes is dying of late-stage cancer and is in crippling pain almost constantly.  Her two sisters Maria and Karin take turns watching over her, along with Anna the housemaid.  Interspersed with this main story thread are Maria and Karin's flashbacks to traumatic episodes involving their respective husbands.  Maria cheated on hers with Agnes's doctor, causing her husband Joakim to attempt suicide by stabbing himself.  Karin is repulsed by her husband and engages in self-mutilation to dissuade him from wanting her sexually.  Both sisters have very strong neuroses in dealing with others - Karin can't bear physical contact of any kind, while Maria seems to interact with everyone erotically, indifferent to the consequences of her actions.  Anna, the most religious of the group, lost her young daughter years earlier and is the most genuinely affectionate toward Agnes in her time of need, cradling her dying friend against her naked skin (Could they have been lovers?  The film doesn't say for sure.).  All four of these women are scarred by trauma of one kind or another, and the film focuses very closely on their various forms of suffering.
It's a difficult movie to review, a classic case of "It's not WHAT the film is about but HOW it is about it," as Roger Ebert would say.  Cries and Whispers is unrelentingly claustrophobic, taking place almost entirely in a few rooms of the sisters' childhood manor, all of which are bathed in red from floor to ceiling.  Intense closeups are used copiously, with unbroken shots lasting uncomfortably long and forcing us to share in the characters' pain.  Flashback transitions take the form of a particular character in closeup over the sounds of people whispering, and fading to red.  This is a film steeped in human anguish, unsettling to watch and tricky to unpack.

The performances by the four women are all naturalistic and true.  Ingrid Thulin is cold and distant as Karin, burying her emotions to mask her deep unhappiness.  Liv Ullmann as Maria is self-indulgent and aloof, seeking instant gratification at all costs.  Kari Sylwan as Anna is the most sympathetic character, the only one who truly seems able to comfort Agnes, despite carrying around her own sorrow and being openly unappreciated by those she serves.  And Harriet Andersson gives perhaps the strongest performance as Agnes, hoping to achieve some kind of final peace with her sisters while battling near-constant debilitating distress.  Her episodes of writhing agony have been compared to the passion of Jesus.

Cries and Whispers was a critical and commercial success and became only the fourth foreign language film to earn a Best Picture nod, ultimately taking home the trophy for Best Cinematography.  I wasn't sure what exactly to make of it when it was over, as it's much more an exercise in style and mood as opposed to a tangible narrative.  From a pure filmmaking standpoint it is quite effective on that level; it sets out to make us share in the characters' pain by showing it up close, relentlessly, and within an oppressively confined space.  I can't see myself giving it a rewatch very often but it's certainly a provocative, moody piece of art.

I give Cries and Whispers *** out of ****.

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