I Review: Cries and Whispers (1972)

This is my first standalone film review! Apparently I’m not supposed to make value judgements. I will make absurd comparisons instead.

I’m sure many people have already said exactly what I already want to say about Cries and Whispers: at a bookshop near my university, before I had seen any Bergman film (I write having now seen Wild Strawberries, Persona and this) I came across a dictionary-sized guide to his, and only his work. I did not have the physical prowess to comfortably pick up and flip through the book. This scared me – who would or could write a volume this big about my favourite directors, the Hollywood German Jews of the 1930s-70s? What did this man make? Who was he, some kind of celluloid Picasso? Almost all of his films have very long Wikipedia pages and have been subject to rigorous academic study. I am but a pale blue dot in the vast universe of Bergman writers. At least I know more than my own father, who said completely seriously at mention of his name, ‘Ha! You mean Ingmar Bergson!’

Some background: I was basically educated from 2012 to 2015 by Rookie writers in their twenties and thirties who did their best, for some very questionable reason, to convince their young readership that Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides was not only definitely a film intended for impressionable teenagers but also the peak of Western cinema. I bought into this, and now I have a knee-jerk reaction that any film featuring a) a non-zero number of women wearing white dresses in the same room, b) religious iconography, c) female agony, is automatically brilliant. Luckily, all of these things – and more! – exist in Cries and Whispers, the story of three sisters tangled in a web of death, sex, belief and emnity. Obviously, I liked it.

It also turns out that Cries and Whispers is actually a lot closer to my beloved Golden Age of Hollywood than I thought it would be – and to my favourite genre, the stylistic period drama. The ‘strong female lead’ costume dramas of ’30s and ’40s Hollywood – Jezebel, Camille, Gaslight – are similar in their ornate depictions of womanly agony. We are shut into an enclosed space and bombarded with all the melodramatic trappings of an exemplary Sirk, from the positioning of actresses onscreen (like a ballet) to the mood music (Chopin’s Mazurka no. 4 in A minor) and, of course, the colours.

The use of red in this film is famous and almost too obvious – crossing the elementary colour-symbolism line of sex-danger-love-violence until it became a comment on the excess, rather than just the existence, of these elements in the story, fading out scene-by-scene into a final saturation. Bergman thought the soul was black on the outside and red on the inside, and the mansion, with all the rooms and hallways the term ‘mansion’ might entail, serves as a sort of diorama of the human psyche. The women face these reddened experiences – desire, emnity, conceptualisation of death – in separate, designated compartments. The walls, like the elevator scene in The Shining, drip with blood. Their white dresses and wall-drapings constitute innocence, an attempt at remaining unstained by the unsavoury proceedings.

Here are some visual things I was reminded of at various points:

The Parisian apartment in Gigi (1958, dir. Vincente Minnelli)

I wonder if Bergman saw this film? This red interior was just one set-dressing of many – the numerous apartments, ballrooms and parks acted as a barrier to saturation fatigue or claustrophobia, and obviously it would not do to set your hearty musical comedy in just one extremely strange place.

John Singer Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends | Artseer
The Birthday Party by John Singer Sargent (1887)
John Singer Sargent | A Dinner Table at Night | American | The Met
A Dinner Table at Night by John Singer Sargent (1884)

I also wonder whether Bergman looked at these two paintings, which could almost have been screencaps from the film. The faceless gentleman in The Birthday Party looms over supposedly innocent proceedings – the white child and tablecloth, the jovial woman in red – just as death, and the dying sister Agnes, does in the film. The wine in A Dinner Table at Night resembles blood.

I’m glad my early conditioning inspired me to enjoy this. I love finding new loops in the Great Aesthetic Chain and this was a good one.

Have fun! Paint the town red!

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