Cries and Whispers is Ingmar Bergman's most painful and emotionally excruciating film, involving three sisters who have nothing but contempt, bitterness, and disgust with one another and for themselves. The bleak story takes place in a lavish mansion in the late 1800's, as it depicts the final days of one of the three sisters who is bed-ridden with cancer. Her two sisters return to the family home to be beside her during her last few days, but they remain distant and aloof with each-other, struggling to want to reach out and comfort their dying sister, all while coming in terms with the shock and fear of mortality her death is bringing to them. Bergman's earlier films touched on the themes of death and suffering, but nothing quite to the painful extremes of Cries and Whispers. In The Seventh Seal, Max Von Sydow faced Death himself in a game of chess, but during this film watching their suffering sister scream in such agony and pain before her death seems much more personal, disturbing and universal. The sophistication and artistry in the use of the color crimson red is quite extraordinary, as its color represents each character's fundamental emotional associations with blood, death and spirituality, including the interior of the human soul. Bergman even fades in and out of flash backs and dream sequences using the color red (along with the quite eerie sounds of distant whispering), which I find gives this film quite a dramatic and chilling power. Throughout the film audiences only hear the diegetic sounds of the dreary environment which involve the ticking of clocks, bells ringing, wind blowing and the screaming agony of their sister, while the film explores the complex and disturbing themes of infidelity, exterior facades, and incestuous tension between the three sisters. Bergman once stated in his book Images, “All my films can be thought of in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers."
Cries and Whispers takes place in a lavish mansion in the late 1800's. It depicts the final days of Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who is near-death with cancer. Her sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) have returned to the family home to be with her during her last few days. They remain distant and awkward, and struggle to comfort their sister, while dealing with shock and the fear of mortality her death is bringing to them. The deeply religious maid Anna (Kari Sylwan), whose own daughter died young, is able to comfort her, and you can see that Agnes and Anna have a truly loving relationship.
The sisters take turns watching her, while the other goes and rests in their own room. In the first shot of the film, Agnes wakes up and sees Maria sleeping in a nearby chair. She smiles at her tenderly, slowly gets out of bed and takes a walk around the room. When she finally gets back into bed and falls asleep, Karin walks in and wakes Maria and asks if Agnes had gotten up at all. Maria says no – but we know as an audience that she was moving around earlier when they were all resting.
Anna, being very religious, always prays when going to bed and waking up each morning. She lights a candle, kneels before a photo of her dead daughter, and asks God to forgive her saying such things as, "I thank thee, dear Lord for allowing me to awaken well and cheerful this morning after a good sleep under Thy protection, and after the enjoyment of a restful night. I beseech Thee also today and each day whom Thou in Thy unfathomable wisdom tookest unto Thyself...in Thy homeland. Amen." Then she blows out the candle and takes a healthy bite out of an apple. She secretly has Agnes' diary and opens it up to read some of Agnes' writings. The film consists of four flashbacks which involve all four of the main women; two involve their husbands. The first flashback is Agnes' which is read through her diary by Anna.
[ ...fades out to Agnes' flashback ]
After smelling a flower Agnes remembers being a young girl when her mother was still alive and how she would often follow her around on the luscious and beautiful property estate, while her mother calmly roamed, sat and read. Agnes narrates: "Mother is in thoughts nearly everyday although she's been dead for over 20 years. I remember I would always seek the solitude and peace of the grounds. I also remember that I would follow her at a distance, and spy on her without really meaning to, because I loved her to such a jealous extreme. I loved her because she was gentle and beautiful and alive and so all-pervadingly present. But she could also be cold, playfully cruel and rebuff me. Yet I could not help in feeling sorry for her and now that I'm older, I understand her much better. I wish I could see her again to tell her what I understand of her boredom, her impatience, her longing and her loneliness." (Oddly the flashbacks of her mother are also played by Liv Ullman who also plays Maria in the film. "
At twelfth Night Mother always gave a party and Aunt Olga would come with her magic lantern and her fairytales. I always felt frightened and left out. When Mother spoke to me in her hurried way I could hardly understand what she wanted of me. Mother and Maria always had many things to whisper about, but then they were so alike. Jealously I used to wonder what they were laughing at together. Everyone was in gay spirits. I was the only one who couldn't join in the merriment." It then flashes back to another time in autumn.
"I hid behind the curtain and in secret I watched her. She was in the red drawing room wearing her white dress sitting still with her head bent and her hands resting on the table. Suddenly she saw me...and in a gentle voice she called me. 'Come'. Uncertain, I went up to her thinking that, as usual, she was going to scold me. But instead she gave me a look so full of sorrow that I nearly burst in tears. I raised my hand and put it against her cheek and for that moment we were really close..."
[ fades in back to the present... ]
The next morning Agnes wakes up and hears someone out in the main-hall. "There somebody out there," she says quietly wanting the comfort of Anna. She is relieved to see it is the local doctor David (Erland Josephson) who has arrived to see how Agnes is doing. The doctor comforts Agnes and when leaving he says to Karin, "She is very tired now. I don't think it will be long."
Before leaving Maria calls out to him and asks him in the corner. The doctor approaches her and they hold each other's hands as she has him caress her breast, face, and lips. "It's been so long", she says. "When can I see you again?" They begin to kiss but he pulls away and says no. The doctor quickly turns and leaves.
[ ...fades out to Maria's flashback ]
Several years back the family doctor David who lived in the nearby country town was called by to check on Anna's daughter who was taken ill. At that time Anna had gone to Italy with Agnes for her health, as Maria and her husband we're staying at the manor. While the doctor is done checking on Anna's daughter Maria asks him to stay a while and even makes him some dinner.
When he asks her where her husband Joakim is Maria tells him he's away that evening on business and wont be back until the next day. She watches him eat and offers him to spend the night in the guest room and use Anna's spare bed. He agrees and that evening Maria comes into the doctor's room dressed up while he is reading and asks if she is bothering him."Why are you so formal? Couldn't you let the past be forgotten?" She asks while trying to get romantic with him. David gets up and tells her to come near him. He has her look in the mirror and he says:
"Look at yourself in the mirror. You're beautiful. You are probably more beautiful now than before. But you have changed a lot too. I want you to see how you've changed. Now your eyes cast quick, calculating side glances. You used to look ahead straightforwardly openly, unmasked. Your mouth has taken on an expression of discontent, and hunger. It used to be so soft. Your complexion is pale now. You use make-up. Your fine, broad, forehead now has wrinkles above each brow. No, you can't see it in this light, but you can in broad daylight. Do you know what caused those wrinkles? Indifference, Marie. And this fine line that runs from ear to chin is not as obvious any more but it is etched there by your easygoing, indolent ways. And there, by the bridge of your nose. Why do you sneer so often, Marie? You see it? You sneer too often. See, Marie? And look under your eyes. The sharp, scarcely noticeable lines of your impatience and ennui."
"Can you really see all of that in my face?"
"No, but I feel it when you kiss me."
"I think you're joking with me. It's evident where you see it. "
"You see it in yourself. Because we're so alike you and I."
"You mean the selfishness? Coldness? Unconcern?"
"I usually find your arguments boring."
"Is there no absolution for such as you and I?"
"I haven't any need of being pardoned."
The next morning after the doctor leaves her husband Joakim returns home from business. Maria falsely smiles and tells him the doctor stopped by to check on Anna's sick daughter and that her and Joakim should later go meet some friends at a social gathering. While she rambles on, you can see the sadness in her husbands face knowing she is lying and probably has lied about her adultery (and everything else) for several years.
While Maria is spending time with Anna's daughter Joakim gets up from the table and walks over to his wife. He studies his wife that he loves for a moment and tenderly rubs her check. He then leaves for the study. Soon after, Maria follows him in there and she is astonished to find him at the desk attempting suicide by plunging a large dagger in his chest. He turns to her in pain and his hands full of blood. "Help me...help me please...!" He removes the dagger and realizing he can't even successful attempt it he takes a seat and starts crying shamefully. Maria instead of helping and comforting her husband cowardly turns away out of fear and cowardice.
[ fades in back to the present... ]
During the night Karin calls Anna (Anna seems highly frightened of Karin) and asks if she hears anything but Anna only hears the wind and the clocks ticking. Karin is freezing and decides to head to bed for the night. Agnes is in horrible pain and anguish as she cries out for Anna. "Anna, come here. Anna come to me. Your so far away. It hurts so much!" In one of the few truly tender scenes of the film Anna undoes her shirt and cuddles up with Agnes having her rest her head on her breast. "You don't have to worry," Anna says, "I'm here to stay with you. It will be alright. You don't have to worry when I'm here." Anna lightly kisses Agnes and she says, "You are so good to me," falling asleep in her arms.
Later that night Anna knocks on Maria and Karin's door to inform them that Agnes is getting much worse and her breathing is getting strange and erratic. When they all go into Agnes's room Agnes starts hollowing and crying in pain screaming, "Anna!! Anna!! Anna!!!" They're about to call the doctor, but eventually things calm down for a bit. They then undress Agnes and bath her, giving her a new gown while Maria reads to her a little.
Shortly after, another episode occurs and Agnes's breathing problems get much more frantic in which she can't even speak. Her pain is so horrible that she is shrieking out screams of torture and agony. She's pleading for her sisters to help make it stop but there is nothing for them to do. "CANT ANYONE HELP ME!!! HELP ME!!!" Her animal cries of pain and suffering frighten all three of the woman because they feel helpless. Maria quickly turns away not wanting to see her sister suffering in such horrible pain and Agnes starts breathing more erratic and seems to start choking on her own saliva. They rush to bring a bowl over to her if she vomits but eventually things come down once again.
Anna consoles her and Agnes takes one look at her and smiles; then quietly dies. Maria starts crying while Karin is stunned at the sudden death of their sister. Karin and Anna take Agnes and lay her flat-out on the bed and cover her up nicely with the bed-sheet placing her hands over her chest. A priest arrives that evening and reads some passages from the bible. The camera pans a close up shot on all three woman showing in great detail their painful griefs of sadness. After the priest is finished he says to the women, "She was my confirmation child. We often had talks together through the many years. Her faith was stronger than mine."
[ ...fades out to Karin's flashback ]
The third flashback is Karin's story and is probably the most disturbing and shocking part of the film. It goes back some years earlier with Karin and her husband Fredrik as they were pursuing a diplomatic career. During their visit of their native land they stay for some months at the family manor. The two are quietly having dinner and you can tell by the coldness and non-communication between the two of them that they both have a loveless and unhappy marriage. Karin watches her husband eating and asks, "Do you want coffee or are we going to retire immediately?" He says he doesn't want coffee and suddenly her wine glass shatters which leads to a silent awkward moment, and Fredrik continues eating. After Fredrik is finished he says, "It's late. I suggest we retire now."
After dinner Fredrik goes into their bedroom to read, and Karin stays out at the dinner table and stares at nothing. She angrily starts saying to herself, "It's but a tissue of lies. All of it." That night Anna is helping her undress to put on her night-gown. Karin snaps demanding Anna to not look at her, and at one point almost seems like she is about to physically attack her, "Don't look at me like that, I say!" Karin quickly steps back and apologizes for her sudden outburst and after Anna undresses into her night gown she excuses Anna from the room.
Karin still is holding onto the piece of sharp glass from the wine bottle she shattered at the dinner table. "It's a tissue of lies. It's a monumental tissue of lies." In a disturbing moment of self-injury she takes the piece of glass and puts it between her legs and presses down cutting her genitals. When walking into bed she lays down and presents herself in front of her husband Fredrik with blood between her legs and all over her hands and night-gown. She takes some of that blood and smears it on her face in a sort of sick satisfaction licking her lips.
[ fades in back to the present... ]
The next morning Maria walks up to Karin while Karin's going through all the forms and paper work that regard their deceased sister and of the estate. Maria then says to her, "Karin I want us to be friends. I want us to talk to each other. After all we're sisters. We have so many of the same memories. Karin, it's so strange how we don't reach one another how we only make small talk. Karin, why don't you want to be my friend? We've both been happy and unhappy. We could laugh and cry together. We could talk together for days and nights on end. We could put our arms around each other. Karin? I wander through our childhood home sometimes where all is at once strange but familiar and it seems I am in a dream and an event of great importance is in store for us. Yes, I know I'm childish. You read much more than I do, think much more than I do. Your experience is far great. Karin, couldn't we devote these days to getting to know each other finally? To coming closer together. I can't stand to be silent and distant, Karin."
Karin gets frustrated with her sister and quickly gets up and walks away as Maria says, "It's easy to do, but I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. Karin!" Karin grabs Agnes's diary off the table and starts to read it out loud. Anna is upset when she overhears Karin reading from Agnes's diary. Maria tries to reach out to touch Karin but Karin gets hysterical. "No, don't touch me! Don't come near me! I can't stand anyone touching me." Maria still comes closer to her and slowly and tenderly starts caressing her sisters face and touches her lips, lightly pawing at her like a cat. Karin is completely still as she starts to cry saying, "I can't stand anyone touching me. I don't want you to do that. I don't want you to be kind to me." When Maria tries to kiss her, Karin pulls away screaming. "I can't! I can't stand it! Constant torture! It's like being in the greatest hell! I can't breathe any longer! All of that guilt! No! NO!!!! Leave me alone. Leave me alone...Don't touch me..." Don't touch me... Don't touch me..."
[ fades towards the evening... ]
The shot cuts to a close-up of Anna later that evening as Karin apologizes to Maria about her earlier behavior and doesn't know what came over her saying it was probably do to the stress of the death of Agnes. She goes over the paper work with Maria and tells her it's best to sell the house and grounds, dividing everything between each other. After Anna leaves the room Karin says to Maria that they should probably give Anna notice and a few weeks pay saying, "also a little article of Agnes. She was quite devoted. The fact of it is that they were very attached. Now she trails after us in too familiar a manner."
She then looks at Maria and says, "It's true. I...I...think... about suicide. I've often thought about it. It's... it's disgusting. It's very degrading and everlastingly the same. Maria is in silence as she listens to her sister. "You look so disconcerted. You thought our talk would be different, didn't you?" Karin says then venomously attacks her sister by saying, "Do you realize I hate you? And how foolish I find your insipid smile and your idiotic flirtatiousness? How have I managed to tolerate you so long and not say anything? I know of what you're made - with your empty caresses and your false promises. Can you conceive how anyone can live with so much hate as has been my burden? There's no relief, no charity, no help! There is nothing. Do you understand? Nothing can escape me for I see all! Now you hear how it sounds when Karin talks."
Maria is hurt by Karin's cold and cruel comments and leaves the room. Karin gets up to leave the room. She turns to look at her sister and says, "You sit there grinning your cold grin. What are you thinking? Would you care to tell me? May I have your opinion? No! That's just what I thought. You'd rather stay silent. You are right, Maria!" Karin leaves the room as Maria starts to cry. While in the corridor Karin screams in agony and when Maria starts to leave Karin stops her and apologizes. She asks Maria to forgive her saying, "Marie, look at me." Then comes one of the most joyful scenes in the film where you see the both of them crying and eventually start to connect and communicate through music. You don't hear the words they are saying to one another but in this odd non verbal scene the two women pet each other like friendly kittens, while expressing what look like words of love and endearment.
[ ...fades out to Anna's Dream ]
The last flashback is Anna's but it's more of a surreal dream sequence then a flashback. Anna wakes up hearing a baby crying which is probably the haunting sound of her dead daughter who probably died from her earlier illness. "Don't you hear it? Don't you hear the crying? Don't you hear it? Someone is crying endlessly." As she is walking throughout the corridor of the mansion she sees Maria and Karin in the corridor emotionless and moving their lips with no sound coming out. She then goes into Agnes's bedroom to find Agnes alive with a tear running down her face. Agnes asks, "Are you afraid of me now? I can't leave you now. "I'm dead you see. I'm so tired. Can't anyone help me." Anna says she can't because it's only a dream but Agnes assures her it is not a dream for her.
Agnes then asks Anna to call for Karin to come in. When Anna informs Karin that Agnes wants to see her Karin walks on in but keeps her distance. Agnes asks Karin if she can hold her hands and warm her. Agnes asks to stay with her and Karin says, "Nobody would do what you ask. I'm still alive. I won't except involvement in your death. Perchance if I loved you...but I do not love you. What you ask to do is repulsive. I'm leaving you now. In a few hours I'll be gone." Agnes cries and asks Anna to now bring in Maria. Maria walks in and gets close to Agnes becoming very tenderly. "You are my sister, I don't want you to be alone," says Maria. "Oh, how sorry I am for you." The two start talking about their childhood experiences and when they would cuddle very close at night. Agnes asks Maria to come closer and when Agnes suddenly starts putting her hands on Maria and tries to kiss her, Maria starts to cry and becomes hysterical and runs out back into the corridor as all the other doors seem to be locked. Agnes tries to kiss Maria and Maria goes completely hysterical and runs out of the room pleading for help. Agnes starts to cry after Karin and Maria abandon her sisters tenderness and Anna confronts the two and tells them, "You needn't be afraid. I'll stay by her," as the two sisters makes up false lies on why they can't be there for Agnes. Marie says insincere lies and Karin lashes out with violent insults. Anna then walks into Agnes's room and shuts the door behind her. She comforts Agnes alone with her usual love and compassion and again removes her shirt and having Agnes rest on her breast.
[ fades in to reality... ]
The next scene is after Agnes's funeral as Fredrik says, "The funeral was tolerable. No one wept or grew hysterical." Everyone is at the mansion while everything is moved out and the building is empty. Joakim politely asks what they should do for Anna suggesting to give her a sum of money or help her find a new place to live. Fredrik coldly says, "Out of the question. She's young and strong and has it easy until now." They all come to the agreement to reward Anna's 12 years of faithful service she can stay until the months end and a have keepsake of Agnes. When they call Anna in and ask if she wants anything she says, "Thank u. I want nothing at all."
They all then get up and leave the mansion and each say their goodbye's to Anna with Maria having Joakim give her some extra cash. In one of the most tragic and best scenes of the film while they are all on their way out, Karin calls Maria aside to speak to her in private. Karin finally becomes kind and gentle and tells her sister how she enjoyed getting closer to Maria these last few days. "Have you thought about what we've discussed? Could we hold to all our resolutions?" But she notices Maria is much different and seems to be treating her coldly. Karin asks what her sister is thinking and Maria rudely says, "I'm thinking how Joakim hates it if I keep him waiting. What do you want?" Karin looks down in defeat and says nothing. Maria says, "If there's nothing you want, don't be hurt because I must say good-bye to you now." Before Marie leaves Karin gets sternly says to her, "You touched me. Remember that." Maria ignores her threats and says,"Dearest Karin, give the children my love and keep well." When she tries to kiss her Karin turns away. Maria just gives her a fake smile and says, "How sad."
When everyone leaves the mansion we watch Agnes go to a drawer and take out a parcel unwrapping it to reveal Agnes' journal that she secretly kept for herself. She probably knew Agnes would have wanted her to have it and so kept it away from her sisters. She reads a beautiful part of Agnes life which was probably only a few years back before she got really sick. Agnes, Anna and her two sisters are outside on the estate property during a September autumn day afternoon and everything is as perfect as it can be:
"Wednesday, third of September. The tang of autumn fills the clear, still air, but its mild and fine. My sisters, Karin and Maria have come to see me. It's wonderful to be together again like in the old days, and I am feeling much better. We were even able to go for a little walk together. Such an event for me, especially since I haven't been out-of-doors for so long. Suddenly we began to laugh and run toward the old swing that we hadn't seen since we were children. We sat in it like three good little sisters and Anna pushed us, slowly and gently. All my aches and pains were gone. The people I am most fond of in all the world were with me. I could hear their chatting around me. I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, "Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life...which gives me so much."
In his book Images, Ingmar Bergman has written: “All my films can be thought of in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, it says that red represents for me the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I imagined the soul to be a dragon, a shadow floating in the air like blue smoke—a huge winged creature, half bird, half fish. But inside the dragon, everything was red.”
Certainly Cries and Whispers marks the most sophisticated use of color in Bergman’s long career. It was only in 1963 that he turned, somewhat reluctantly, to color for All These Women, and even after that he continued to opt for black and white in such crucial films as Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame. With Cries and Whispers, however, Bergman for once—by his own admission—wants the work to be regarded in chromatic terms.
As inside Bergman’s dragon, everything in Cries and Whispers seems steeped in red. The overwhelming scarlet hues of the film, mitigated to some degree by the blacks and whites of dresses or sheets, refer not just to the “soul” but also quite literally to human blood. For Cries and Whispers concerns the physical body and the process of dying and, more important still, the coming to terms with death.
From a thematic point of view, Cries and Whispers represents Bergman’s most daring attempt to achieve a dream state on film. The script itself was couched in the language of a story, with more stress on atmosphere and milieu than on dialogue. The result is a film that has the seamless quality of life experienced in trance-like form.
With Cries and Whispers, Bergman once more gazes back in time to a period at the turn of the century when religion still constituted a significant force in Swedish life and when the social hierarchy was more pronounced. Three sisters dwell in a large, hushed mansion, along with their loyal maid, Anna. Agnes is dying from some form of cancer and, as her agony increases, so does the tension between her sisters, Karin and Maria. The crisis serves to reveal the overweening egotism of Karin and Maria and, in flashbacks, each recalls moments from their lives. The visit of the family doctor shows Maria to be self-absorbed and complacent, while Karin’s relationship with her husband is based on bitterness and mistrust.
Agnes, however, radiates gentleness and grace, even as she sinks into a coma and then, mysteriously, seems restored to life. She is the one character untouched by rancor and suspicion. The “resurrection” of Agnes suggests that the actual process of death is more hideous than the meaning of death, which, as Bergman said at his press conference in Cannes in 1973, is a logical development of life.
Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullman, Ingrid Thulin, and Erland Josephson are familiar figures in the Bergman canon. While Kari Sylwan as the devout and motherly maid matches them scene for scene, it is Harriet Andersson’s physical presence which dominates the film. With little dialogue at her disposal, she suffers her torment with Christ-like courage, her dark eyes appealing desperately for some measure of understanding among her siblings. After her funeral, she speaks to the audience on the soundtrack, reading from her diary as she describes a charmed moment: The three sisters, dressed in glistening white, stroll through the sunlit park. They sit beside one another on a swing. “I felt the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands,” says Agnes. “Come what may, this is happiness…here for a moment. I can experience perfection.” As in all of Bergman’s greatest films, from The Seventh Seal to Fanny and Alexander, there is in Cries and Whispers an abiding aspiration to beauty and serenity.
Cries and Whispers remains one of the most superb manifestations of the art of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who justly won an Academy Award for his work on the film. From the hallucinatory images of the coming of dawn in the parkland surrounding the manor, to the intensity of the close-ups inside the house, he creates a three-dimensional magic that aestheticizes the emotional anguish of the family.
Bergman and his team made the film over a 42-day period during the late summer and early autumn of 1971, shooting on location in Taxinge-Näsby, outside Mariefred in the Mälär district west of Stockholm. Although the budget was modest at just under $400,000, Bergman had to ask his actors and Sven Nykvist to invest in the picture. The film’s brilliant quality assured its success at festival after festival, and while it did not perform well at the box-office, it quickly became an art-house staple and remains today an extraordinary vision of “the interior of the soul”.
Cries and Whispers is one of Bergman's greatest and most painful films. The two sisters in the film are monstrous to everyone and especially to each other. Karin and Maria both live in a loveless marriage and deal with it differently and in their own ways. Maria deals with it by having affairs and tries to cover up her unhappiness and pain through fake smiles and fake tenderness. When Maria's husband discovers her infidelity and attempts suicide she doesn't even care to go to the aid and help him. Karin however, is the exact opposite and doesn't want to live a false life at all making her furious and lash out at everyone and the world. She knows her loveless marriage is a sham and will even go to the extreme of harming herself to harm her husband and keep him way.
The only two happy characters in the film is Agnes their dying sister and Anna their maid. Both of them are unmarried and yet happy and love each other. (Their possibly lesbian lovers, it's never really said.) A lot of people speak of Bergman as being anti-religious but I disagree. Agnes and Anna are the true good characters in the film and were both deeply religious people. Agnes was said by the town priest that she was his confirmation child and even had stronger faith then him, and Anna prays to God for the soul of her dead daughter every morning and night. Over the years Anna has silently moved throughout the background of this self-destructing family and helplessly had to watch them tear them self emotionally apart. She loves Agnes, and would love the others if they would want to be loved, and it greatly saddens her.
At the end of the film everyone leaves the estate but allows Anna to stay there for a few more weeks. We watch Agnes go to a drawer and take out a parcel unwrapping it to reveal Agnes' journal that she secretly kept for herself. She probably knew Agnes would have wanted her to have it and so she kept it away from her sisters. Most of the film was shot within the gloomy estate which gave a feeling we were in a sort of tomb of dread, full of pain, hatred and complete isolation. Their are only a few scenes in the story (like for instance Agnes's flashback as a young girl) where the film liberates the audience from the claustrophobic red blood soaked walls of the estate and takes us into the lush colorful outside world of nature and freedom.
Cries and Whispers was extremely well received by critics. The New York Times' Vincent Canby called it a "magnificent, moving, and very mysterious new film". After several unsuccessful experimental films Cries and Whispers was a critical and commercial success, gaining nominations for five Academy Awards for director, screenplay and cinematography and a nomination for Best Picture, which was unusual for a foreign-language film. Cries and Whispers returned to the traditional Bergman themes of the female psyche or the quest for faith and redemption. Unlike Bergman's previous films, Cries and Whispers uses saturated color, especially crimson. It was for the color and light scheme that the brilliant cinematographer and long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Cries and Whispers was shot during a late summer over a 42-day period in 1971 and although the budget was under 400,000, Bergman had to ask his actors and Sven Nykvist to help invest in the picture.
The four women presented in Cries and Whispers are extremely complex and multi-layered and so when I watched Cries and Whispers for the first time I missed several subtle moments and meaningful expressions throughout the story. My first viewing I found Karin to be a coldhearted bitter woman who could coldly push away her own sister Maria who was emotionally trying to reach out and connect with her at a time when she needed it after the death of their sister. Now watching this film for the third time I look at her as less of a monster then Maria. Yes, she is cold, distant and angry and because of her bitterness will unfortunately never find happiness. But I found her to be less despicable and tragic, because she at least is honest about how she feels and who she is. She hates living a lie and knows her blissful marriage is a tragic façade and the only way to lash out on these repressed feelings is to hurt others. She knows that the best way to harm her husband is to harm herself, which is clearly unbalanced but at least she is openly honest about her cruelness and how she feels than trying to deceit and trick others it is something different. When first viewing the sequence when Karin says those cruel insults to her sister Marie, just moments after Maria tried connecting with her earlier, I thought was completely unforgivable. But Bergman's films are the type of films that you can rewatch and discover something new, or catch something that you didn't see the last time. When viewing this film for the third time now and now knowing what to expect and the outcome of the story, the cruel words Karin says to Marie make much more sense and probably hold a lot of truth. Yes, they're hurtful but at least their honest. When Karin feels awful about it later she apologizes and decides to let her guard down eventually welcoming Marie in. The two sisters pour their emotions and hearts out connecting and communicate through music. You don't hear the words they are saying to one another but in this odd non verbal scene the two women pet each other like friendly kittens, while expressing what look like words of love and endearment. And yet at the end of the film when the sisters are leaving the estate Karin tries to recall this joyful moment with Maria and Maria coldly rejects the memory. Now my eyes are open and I see where Karin is coming from. Earlier at the dinner table she insulted Maria for her fake smile and false promises, and that's exactly what Maria embodies. Maria earlier in the film went on and on begging to Karin on how she wanted to truly build a long-lasting loving relationship with her sister and I finally came to the realization that she probably has made these fake promises to Karin all her life, and never once has gone through with any of them. The flashback sequence in which David the local doctor forces Marie to look at herself in the mirror and David goes on a detailed monologue describing Maria's facial features and reflects upon her true inner nature, was the revelation of Maria's character for the audience. He reveals that behind this exterior beauty is really a cold, selfish and maybe slightly sociopathic individual who hides behind a façade of a false, loving and caring person. Maria coldly even asks him, "You mean the selfishness? Coldness? Unconcern? Is there no absolution for I?" Because of this, it's probably is part of the reason her sister Karin is bitter, hateful and resentful towards Maria which is understandable because you can only give someone the benefit of the doubt so many times. Karin seems hateful not only towards her sister though but to the entire world which is unfortunate for her because most people are not like Maria and for her to be bitter, hateful and resentful to everyone is tragic. Bergman never really goes into great detail on the three sisters history or childhood and we aren't given too much information about their mother except through Agne's diary in which she describes her as a strict but lively person. The father is left ambiguous within the story, but while watching this it is clear there is a lot of incestual tension between the three sisters. Many times in the film one of them is uncomfortably touching the other and there is some past sexual repression that we as an audience aren't too clear about. What happened to these three sisters during their childhood to have them become so emotionally and sexually unstable? Like all the great artists Bergman never gives us the answers and leaves many things ambiguous, so we as an audience have to try to come up with conclusions. Whatever Maria and Karin have been through I'm sure Agnes has been through as well but at least she has learned to love and forgive or maybe she was as unforgiving and sinful as her sister's before she became ill. Most of us come to a self-realization on our past sins when we know Death is around the corner, and maybe that's what Bergman is trying to say with this film.