Saturday, April 9, 2011

1973 - Cries and Whispers

During a lovely stroll along the High Line on Manhattan's West Side, Kat and I stumbled upon a rather sad sight indeed. Is there anything that could elicit more sympathy than a five-year-old girl holding a limp piece of silver ribbon and crying with devastation as she watches her balloon fly off into the upper atmosphere? Reminded me of this.

Yesterday, I took in a classic Swedish film from 1973, a rare foreign-language Best Picture nominee...

Cries and Whispers
Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman
Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson, Henning Moritzen, Georg Arlin
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

If you don't like artsy foreign films, probably best for you to steer clear of Cries and Whispers. From acclaimed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the film centres on three estranged sisters, one of whom, Agnes (Andersson), is dying slowly ... painfully slowly. Her flirty sister Maria (Ullman) and her morose sister Karin (Thulin) are relatively useless at comforting her during this rough time. Thankfully, however, the family maid Anna (Sylwan) shares a particularly special bond with Agnes, managing to calm her down when her misery is at its worst. Through a series of flashbacks, we also get an insight into each sister's predicament in life.

It would be easy to label Cries and Whispers pretentious. From the prolonged opening scene, the picture is rife with lingering shots of emotional faces complemented by lingering shots of characters performing mundane tasks. Even the simple act of changing into one's nightdress is treated with laboured intensity. Granted, a terminally ill family member can make things around the house a tad sombre, but Bergman never lets up. The intensity is constant.

Coincidentally, only hours before I watched this film, I had read an article in which Woody Allen discusses Bergman's influence on his film-making, making reference to the Swede's poetic style of cinema. That poetry is clearly evident in Cries and Whispers. Words are sparse, but when they are spoken, they are often heard via a lengthy monologue that, on the page, must surely have read like poetry. Only through this approach could one get away with lines like, "It's but a tissue of lies."

But the artiness doesn't stop at the dialogue. Metaphors abound throughout the film, from the audacious reds and whites of the production design to the myriad close-ups of ticking clocks. Not to mention the agonising cries and disembodied whispers of the title. Furthermore, the narrative features several odd events that would leave most avant-garde performance artists to shame. One such oddity involves Karin cutting herself in the you-know-where with some broken glass before smearing her own blood across her mouth.

Despite all the surrealism, the cast deliver incredibly natural performances, mostly understated except for those agonising cries. But even this naturalism can not prevent the film being decidedly unrealistic. I found myself constantly scrunching my face in confusion ... until it hit me - it's not supposed to be realistic. The dream-like atmosphere is intentional. (Certain paranormal events near the end of the story make it difficult to draw any other conclusion.) And just like a dream, there is symbolism amidst the strangeness. Eternal truths and observations about life can be depicted through metaphor, allowing for a different perspective. When looking at life through this ornate lens, it suddenly becomes fascinating in unexpected ways. Of course, it's not everyone's cup of tea - and, sadly, I think I may fall into that category - but with all its intensity, it is certainly engaging. You just have to make it past the initial niggling feeling that nothing is happening.

On a separate note, I stumbled upon an unfortunate distraction during my viewing of Cries and Whispers. Since the dialogue is entirely in Swedish, I watched the film with English subtitles, preferring that over watching the dubbed version. However, with Bergman's penchant for close-ups, the subtitles frequently appeared directly over somebody's mouth, corrupting the careful framing. Thus, in this instance, it may actually be preferable to watch the version that has been dubbed with English dialogue, especially considering the voices are mostly that of the Swedish cast.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the day I saw Cries and Whispers in 1973 as well as the theater I saw it in. However, that memory only extended to recollections of the color red, a talky somber picture and most vividly, seeing a poster in the lobby for a movie called Mean Streets directed by someone I hadn't heard of: Martin Scorsese.

    Watching Cries and Whispers again a few weeks ago, it didn't seem less somber, but now much closer to the end of the line than the beginning, I could relate more to the circumstances. Harriet Andersen gives a gut wrenching performance as the dying sister. Bergman seems to have greater insight, if that's the right word, into the psyche of women than of men. So many times, men are portrayed as cold, rigid authority figures, even when they are center stage with the possible exception of Wild Strawberries. Cries and Whispers is certainly one of Bergman's more accessible films from my perspective, and perhaps the Academy thought so as well. It was the only film of his to be nominated for Best Picture