Construing Meta-irony and the Anatomy of Pain in Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972)

“All my films can be thought in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the colour red as the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I saw the soul as a shadowy dragon, blue as smoke, hovering like an enormous winged creature, half bird, half fish. But inside the dragon, everything was red.”

Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is one of the profoundest meditations on the function of pain and suffering and the part it plays in determining the human condition.

Located at the turn of the century, the film takes place at an old English manor and revolves around the lives of four women; Agnes (Harriet Anderson), Maria (Liv Ullmann), Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Kari Sylwan).

The Setting

Opening shot: Karin (left), Maria (center) and Anna (right)

Agnes, the owner of the manor, is a young, virginal woman terminally ill with cancer of the womb. Agnes’ sisters, Maria and Karin, are unhappily married and have traveled to the manor to help take care of their dying sister. Anna is Agnes’ faithful and reliable maid, who goes to great lengths to make her feel as comfortable as possible. The film depicts Agnes’ last two days of life in terrible agony, her death, and in a sense, even her resurrection and legacy.

The three of them bathing Agnes

The three of them bathing Agnes (Harrier Anderson, center)

Except for three minor male characters, the film revolves totally around the women; their emotional travails, struggles and failure to cope with their suffering.

Karin Maria Anna look as Agnes shrieks like an animal

The three helplessly look on as Agnes suffers 

Even though Agnes’ bodily pain, manifested as cries, shrieks and howls of agony, dominated my first impressions of the film, one soon realizes that all four women are locked in their own spiritual struggles, the residue of which is a profound agony that seems has no respite or solution. True, Agnes’s bodily pain is at the core of the narrative and the scene showcasing her overwhelming suffering just before her death is one of the most terrifying depictions of pain I have ever seen.

Maria s husband stabbing himself

Maria looks on (pov) while her husband stabs himself 

Maria and Karin, in turn, suffer from, what Aristotle would have called  their own tragic flaw, about which they can do nothing. This translates to a sort of profound emotional shallowness in Maria’s character (who not only indulges in adultery, but is also unable to help her husband when he stabs himself after getting to know of her transgressions), and a profound hatred for her husband in Karin (who inserts a sharp object in her own vagina, and thereafter lies in front of her cold, loveless husband, smearing her face with the very same blood, thereby making her revulsion towards him or any intimate intercourse with him known).

Karin after cutting herself

Karin looks at her husband triumphantly after cutting herself 

There are many things I would want to speak about. However, since I am a very visual person, the one feature that most struck me was the film’s striking colour palate, made exclusively from shades of red, white and black. These colours I think had a definite metaphorical connotation and were used throughout the film to support, heighten and augment the narrative. Actually, the colours and the images they form seem to communicate more than the dialogue. Juxtaposing Bergman’s own words on the distinct colour palate (quoted above), the film at once gives the impression of portraying a cinematic space belonging to Lacan’s pre-symbolic, pre-linguistic realm (wherein only ‘cries’ or ‘whispers’ – both wordless entities, reign).

Liv Ullmann

Maria (Liv Ullmann) at her best 

Red, probably signifies the interior of the soul, but herein, may also stand as a metaphor for the inside of a womb. White is often the colour linked with virginal Agnes, and stands symbolically for sexual repression. And black is a colour that Bergman has consistently associated with priests and Christianity in his films. It is important to note that these colours mostly appear in two combinations: either red and white, or red and black, creating an arresting visual and thematic dichotomy. Therefore, Bergman seems to suggest how seemingly opposite forces affect the human condition and the nature of the soul on one side, and the socio-cultural repressions on the other.

In regard to colours, in an essay with the DVD version that I got, critic Martin Cowie quotes Bergman, saying, “Yes, because colours represent their fundamental emotional associations, with blood, death and spirituality.”  There are only a few respites from the heavy, ominous continuum of suffering. An opening shot looks out on the estate grounds, and there are brief sequences in the middle and at the end when the family stroll through the green park.

Another aspect which struck me was the use of the flashback. However, unlike the usual function of flashback, which is to highlight or provide new information about the character/situation that enriches/explains it, the film uses flashback for a different purpose.

In fact the narratives of all four are accompanied by flashbacks; beginning and ending with full frames of deep red, then fading into or out of close-ups where their faces are half-illuminated. These flashbacks are not intended to explain biographical details, but to capture moments of extreme emotion, as when Maria wantonly seduces the doctor who has come to care of Anna’s child, or when Karin triumphantly wounds herself to wound her husband even more. Once again the film attempts to highlight inner psychological states, rather than any dynamic details.

In a manner, the emotional tension in the background of the film, between individuals conjoined by blood relations seems very Faulknerian. In fact, towards the end of the film, there is an extraordinary dream sequence in which the dead Agnes asks first one sister and then another to hold her and comfort her. They both reject her. Then Anna (whose dream it is, and there is a lot that can be said about that) comforts her, in a composition that mirrors the Pieta.

Agnes and Anne s Pieta 2

Probably the most iconic frame of the whole film

Another scene reminiscent of the sort of family tensions leading to a complete breakdown, as seen in The Sound and the Fury, shows Maria asking Karin if they cannot be friends, and Karin rebuffing her venomously, only to allow her sister, moments later, to caress her face. And then, in a scene where we see them talking but do not hear their words, the two women pet each other like kittens, while expressing what looks like words of endearment. However, and this is the most disappointing part, when Karin recalls this moment, Maria coldly rejects the memory.

Until now I spoke about the three sisters. While the most important character in the film, I felt, was Anna, Agnes’s caretaker. She reminded me of all the characters I have read of or seen who, because of the strength of their character, endure the most grievous injuries stoically and silently. Even though Roger Ebert writes that the film “was Bergman’s way of treating his own self-disgust and his envy of those who have faith”, I strongly felt that in his envy, Bergman created the very same ideal of faith that he would have most aspired for in Anna’s suffering and character.

Anna realising that Agnes is dead

Anna

Even though there are quite a few instances wherein we feel Anna’s unconditional affections, her concern and care for Agnes (especially when she holds her close to her breasts), the last scene is an masterpiece of cinematographic restraint and grace. Anna is called before the heartless family, given her pittance, and told to be on her way (after having taken care of Agnes for 12 years). Offered a ‘keepsake’, she raises her voice for the only time in the movie, to say, “I want nothing”. In that moment, she resembles King Lear’s Cordelia, who says means something similar when she says, “I cannot heave/ my heart into my mouth: I love your/ majesty/ According to my bond; nor more nor less”.

However, if things would have ended simply this way, Anna wouldn’t have been the character she becomes in the end. For later we find that she has kept something. From a drawer she takes a parcel and unwraps it to reveal Agnes’ journal, and as she reads, we hear Agnes recalling a perfect day in autumn, when the pain was not so bad, and the four women took up their parasols and walked in the garden. “This is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better,” she writes, “I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much”.

The Last scene wherein Anne reads a page from Agnes s journal

Anna’s faith is the faith of a child. Unscathed, absolute, innocent, without questions, and it as Roger Ebert estimates, this is what Bergman profoundly envies.

However, it may also be construed, that in envying something which such ferocity, Bergman comes to know better such faith and its limitless power that helps one forbear all the suffering implicit in the human condition.

And in there, lies the most subtle irony of film.

Post script. I realised this while getting these screenshots ready, that Bergman indeed is the master of capturing the face and facial expressions. I mean, in most of the shots below, the face becomes a seat of intense emotion and expression, and Bergman’s camera effortlessly captures the same.

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