Red. The color of the film’s interior in every sense of the word: the crimson of the walls and carpet, the blood of familial bond, the love shared and mutilated and held ransom.
Red colours Cries and Whispers, Ingrid Bergman’s 1972 release. The film revolves around sisters Agnes, Maria, and Karin, and their maid Anna at the turn of the twentieth century. In their Swedish country manor, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) suffers from an agonizing sickness. Bedridden, she is tended to by the emotional and flighty Maria (Liv Ullman), and the stoic Karin (Ingrid Thulin). Sisters they may be, the latter two do not show the religious devotion that their maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) shows to the dying Agnes.
The red was captivating immediately. I saw the film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the centenary celebration of the legendary Swedish auteur, Bergman 100, is currently being held. Toronto is the third stop, after London and New York.
The film, which was screened using a 35mm archival print, began immediately after the lights dimmed. No previews, just total immersion from the start.
And the start is red.
The red frame is the vibrant background for the opening credits. Each frame of listed credits changes slowly to the steady beat of a tinny tolling bell. This sequence foreshadows the entrancing, dream-like rhythm of the 91-minute film.
The first appearance of a person is Maria, sleeping sitting up in a drawing room awash in red: the carpet, the drapes, the wallpaper, the furniture all upholstered in the same dizzying crimson. When the camera cuts to the sick Agnes, her pallid face is a shock against her red-veined eyelids, fluttering open as she cries in pain.
The red then transforms into that of familial blood. The sisters first appear close. Agnes writes in her diary in the beginning that her sisters take turns sitting up and sleeping near her door. When she calls out in agony, they rush to her side. Maria helps her sit up and undress as Karin bathes her limp body.
But soon we see the red bleed into something else: the tenuous bonds of love that manifests not only between the sisters, but inside each woman. Through arresting shots of each woman’s face as they fade to red, we enter their minds. We see Agnes recall with bitterness the love she did not receive from her mother as a child, and the love she saw Maria revel in. We see Karin’s absence of true, deep love for her sisters, her husband, and most tragically, herself. We see Maria’s longing for love in the husband she no longer cares for, in the doctor that tends to her sister, and in Karin, who at a distance holds it ransom. And we see it in Anna, the devout and devoted, who loves Agnes with abandon as the sister nears her last hours.
Bergman frames each of these women with their own vignettes. In this way, Cries and Whispers privileges us with a look into the interiority of all four characters: their bitterness, their vengeance, their lust, and their love.
While the film takes place almost entirely inside the four red walls of the manor, it may as well have been happening inside each of the women’s heads. The tragedy is thus revealed by the end: they whisper to one another, but they do not listen.