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Criterion Collection: Cries and Whispers | Blu-ray Review

Ingmar Bergman Cries and Whispers Criterion Collection Blu-ray CoverCriterion repackages one of its earlier Ingmar Bergman inclusions this month, restoring his brilliant, enigmatic 1972 masterpiece Cries and Whispers for Blu-ray release. Financed with Bergman’s own money, the auteur had difficulty securing an American distributor, eventually finding an unlikely champion in Roger Corman, of all people, who had recently established his own releasing company, New World, and was in search of prestige titles to build artistic merit.

Rushed to theatrical release to qualify for Academy Awards consideration, it would secure five nominations, including for Best Picture and Director, winning Best Cinematography for Sven Nyqvist, before going on to be selected to play out of competition at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival (awarded the Vulcain Prize of the Technical Artist). In Bergman’s illustrious filmography, it’s unnecessary (and incredibly difficult) to endow any one title as his best from a body of work that sports a myriad of celebrated examples spanning seven decades. Yet this mid-period film is worthy of such a distinction, a brilliant exercise of existential ennui that examines mortality, nostalgia, familial discord and class privilege with stunning emotional depth, aided by an eerie, mysteriousness that’s thoroughly unforgettable.

Comparable in structure and tone to the works of Chekov (Three Sisters seems an obvious reference, but others, such as Francois Truffaut, cite The Cherry Orchard as well) and Ibsen with its period depiction of feminine entrapment as sanctioned by class value (an early close-up of an ornate doll house enhances this motif), Bergman may have gleaned certain inspiration from these texts, yet he taps into original, unfamiliar territory that manages to create a sort of off kilter apprehension. Coming off his poorly received English language debut, 1971’s The Touch, starring Elliott Gould, Max Von Sydow, and Bibi Andersson (one of the few Bergman titles incredibly difficult to find copies of), Cries and Whispers was the critical comeback that would precede another iconic juggernaut from Bergman, 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage.

Three of Bergman’s prized actresses command the screen here, dressed in white, looking like souls lost in the scarlet death chamber of Agnes. The interior of the manor is meant to represent the soul, a membranous, organic vessel, and the sisters like white phantoms of flotsam and jetsam floating around within. While the film opens outside, in the morning fog, a red fade out leads inside the childhood home of the sisters. We will receive only one more present tense glance outside when Agnes opens a window (two other outside moments exist as flashbacks from the memory of Agnes), stuck perpetually to gaze within the confined interior. Immediately after moving inside, we gaze into the faces of ticking clocks, the human construction that defines the passage of time. Minutes and seconds tick by in ornate fixtures, preceding the plentiful close-ups on the faces of the women, expanses representative of this same passage.

The film is divided into three sections, the first depicting the ailing Agnes, dying of uterine cancer, from which she’s suffered through the past twelve years. Bergman casts Harriet Andersson, previously the schizophrenic lead in his excellent Through a Glass Darkly (1961). We focus on her grimly determined face, sometimes wracked with extreme pain, desperately seeking creature comfort that can only be found in the bosom of the saintly maid, Anna (Kari Salwyn, whose only other major screen credit would be an appearance in Bergman’s 1976 Face to Face).

Erland Josephson briefly appears as a doctor examining Agnes, but his presence serves instead to provide insight into Liv Ullmann’s Maria, the younger and superficially inclined of the two sisters, using her beauty and feminine wiles to placate and seduce. The doctor is an old lover and Maria makes an advance, leading him to force her to gaze into a mirror as he points out specifically all the things that time has hardened or warped in her. She smiles, a consummate narcissist, deflecting the criticism as the doctor projecting his own anxieties. Ullmann also portrays their mother via flashback (but with dark hair), in one of Agnes’ limited fond memories, since apparently the mother and Maria were alike, communicating in their own special way.

Ingrid Thulin is cast as Karin, the older, emotionally rigid sister who cannot bear to be touched, resulting in one of the film’s most powerful sequences whereby Maria and Karin paw at each other in desperation, attempting to rekindle their youthful affection for one each other now hopelessly lost. A later scene finds them discussing this moment, and we are able to understand just how tantamount the process of intimate the act of touching is to Cries and Whispers, with Maria’s frivolous, meaningless touches a defense mechanism, while the brittle Karin is undone by acknowledging or allowing it. The film’s enigmatic third act, which centers on Anna and the bizarre return of Agnes, whose dead corpse begs her sisters to stay near her and comfort her with their touch, is really where the film solidifies this provocative emotional quotient.

Disc Review:

Initially securing a slot in the Criterion library back in 2001, this new 2K digital restoration is a beauty. Presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the swaths of red dominate the screen, and it’s a supremely vibrant looking film for what happens to be mostly a chamber piece. The subtle soundtrack is also explicitly noticeable, with unique aural cues evident throughout. Several notable extra features are also included.

Introduction by director Ingmar Bergman:
A seven minute introduction from 2001 is actually a discussion between Bergman and Marie Nyrerod as he discusses the inspiration of the film, which started as a recurring vision of the red room.

New Interview: Harriet Andersson:
Film historian Peter Cowie conducts a twenty minute interview with Andersson from 2012. They discuss her working relationship with Bergman in what they refer to as her first reunion with the director since her star making turn in Through a Glass Darkly (although she does appear in his less notable 1964 title All These Women).

On Set Footage:
Cowie is also on hand to narrate 34 min of silent on-set behind the scenes footage from the film.

Ingmar Bergman – Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson:
A 2000 interview with Josephson and Bergman runs 52 minutes with both giving supremely candid insight into their personal lives, including Bergman’s troubled role as a father and his rather dour outlook on life.

On Solace:
An excellent 2014 video essay from filmmaker ::kogonada breaks down the film into its three acts quite engagingly, and is definitely worth your time.

Final Thoughts:

Bizarre and magnificently unnerving in its configuration of human emotion, there’s a palpable discomfort to Cries and Whispers, with Sven Nyqvist’s impressive cinematography gazing with unwavering patience into the faces of its four females. It’s as if we always linger on them a bit too long, a bit too coldly. While we watch the porcelain beauty of Ullman sneer in disdain at herself, while Salwyn is imbued with saint like propriety, Andersson and Thulin are inverse ends of anguish. “I don’t want you to be kind to me,” shrieks Thulin at one point, while Andersson’s desperate plea to her sisters as her soul lingers between two worlds is a rare glimpse of primal anguish. With Cries and Whispers, Bergman reaches for cinematic possibilities pertaining to the vocalization of emotion and estrangement, a master of a medium that has migrated far away from the distillation of melancholy captured here.

Film: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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