Dir. Ingmar Bergman
(1972, R, 91 min)

The house where Ingmar Bergman‘s Cries and Whispers is set is almost a supernatural place. It draws together three estranged sisters who once grew up there, one of whom is dying, and the space radiates with memory, troubling emotions, and ghosts thought exorcized long ago but found still lingering within its walls. It leads to a moment of magical realism near the end that at first feels jarring but ultimately becomes quite remarkable, expressing as it does a sense of profound familial disconnection that, after all these years, there may be no way to repair.

To me, it doesn’t quite have the emotional clarity of two of Bergman’s subsequent films from that decade which I thought were masterpieces, Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Autumn Sonata (1978), both of which starred Liv Ullmann in performances that rank among the best I’ve seen. In this film, the director explores the past through flashbacks that detail the individual lives of the characters as well as their shared upbringing, but they feel somewhat disconnected from the present story; I’m not sure what Bergman is trying to communicate to us through them other than a general state of discontentment, and there are two instances of self-mutilation that are left vague.

The film is much more potent when the women are together, so long separated that they can scarcely coexist. Ullmann plays Maria, who longs to escape her unhappy marriage through an affair with a doctor (Erland Josephson); she seems to recoil at human suffering, and thus is unable or unwilling to comfort her dying sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson) in her time of need. Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is brittle and reserved, unable to express much emotion to anyone. There is a remarkable scene involving Karin and Maria, in which they, for a moment, are able to recapture their sisterly intimacy; Bergman drops the sound from their dialogue and substitutes a Bach sarabande; their momentary reconciliation is an emotional outpouring so great it can only be expressed by a bold musical flourish.

The heart of the film of not one of the sisters at all, but Anna (Kari Sylwan), a servant who has cared for Agnes for more than a decade. A lesbian relationship is suggested, but whether their bond is sexual isn’t especially important. What matters is the tenderness between them, the nurturing that Anna provides; there’s a beautiful tableau in which she holds Agnes against her naked breast. The image has a visual texture almost like a painting and by itself would justify Sven Nykvist‘s cinematography Oscar.

As a servant of the house, Anna is, in a way, a personification of the house, silently watching over the sisters during some of their most painful moments. But in her compassion she also reflects back at them their failures, coldness, and resentment. It’s no surprise how poorly they treat Anna. She’s a reminder of what they lack. They want nothing more to do with her, the house, or each other.

 

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