1973 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #282: Cries and Whispers (1973)

We end our foreign film triple bill with possibly the best example of how foreign film-making was totally different from everything that was being made in America. It is also a movie that is made by one of the greatest directors of all time who I believe should have had more than one film nominated for Best Picture.

That film is Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a film with an incredibly unique style and a very unusual narrative. I felt watching Cries and Whispers fairly refreshing, especially after my last two films were ‘issue-based’ mainstream American movies. This film sees sisters Karin and Maria return home to be with their sibling Agnes, who is dying of cancer. However, due to their own emotional issues, neither sister wants to be too close to Agnes as they’re worried about their own mortality. It is only maid Anna who will allow herself to get close to Agnes and there is an insinuation made that the two have had some sort of lesbian relationship in the past. Meanwhile, Anna herself is coping with the grief of losing her own daughter some years previously. While at the house, both sisters have to deal with their own issues as the image-obsessed Maria worries about growing old and the emotionless Karin has to mutilate her own body in order to avoid being touched by her husband. The film amps up the oddness in its final chapter by having Agnes return from the dead to confront her sisters who both finally leave the cold and desolate mansion behind them.

The mansion almost becomes a character itself as its cold, emotionless rooms hang heavy over the lives of the three sisters and Anna. My abiding memory of the movie has to be the colour red which covers every wall of the house while the colour is also used to fade in and out of the main characters’ flashbacks. The four central performances were all brilliant with my favourite being that of Kari Sylwan as religious maid Anna who was dealing with some unresolved feelings towards Agnes. Bergman’s direction was a joy to watch as he took the viewer on a sometimes uncomfortable journey to explore the true emotions of Karin and Maria. Karin’s story in particular was a hard watch, especially that mutilation scene, but Ingrid Thulin was believable in the role of this woman who hated to be touched. Liv Ullman gave a good turn as the more glamorous sister, but at the same time she gave us a look at how her actions have had an impact on those around her. The film was nominated for five Oscars including nods for the film itself and Bergman’s direction; while Sven Nykvist successfully won an award for his cinematography. Overall, while never a film you can particularly enjoy, Cries and Whispers is still a film that you need to watch if only to see the way that the cinematic art can be used to provoke a lot of different emotions.


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