Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Bergman, Two from the 70's: Cries and Whispers

Sven Nykvist (left to right),Bergman, Ingrid Thulin, and Liv Ullmann on the set

Bergman with actress Kari Sylwan

Bergman with actress Harriet Andersson

Sven Nykvist on the set

CRIES & WHISPERS (Viskningar och rop)             A        
Sweden  (91 mi)  1972

All my films can be thought in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers.  In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the color red as the interior of the soul.  When I was a child, I saw the soul as a shadowy dragon, blue as smoke, hovering like an enormous winged creature, half bird, half fish.  But inside the dragon, everything was red.
—Ingmar Bergman from Images: My Life in Film, 1994

A film that began as a recurring image in Bergman’s head of a red room with three or four women in the corner wearing white dresses.  Aptly titled, this is easily one of the most excruciatingly painful films to experience in public, as it is filled with the most personal, intimate moments imaginable, a view into a dying woman’s diary, using brief dramatic vignettes, each composition carefully framed by Sven Nykvists’s camera (winning the Academy Award in cinematography), revealed in lush, red velvet glimpses into the barren, anguished souls of the dying woman and her two sisters who, along with her housekeeper, come to see her one last time, each painfully inept in confronting their individual isolation in a silent universe that offers little hope of salvation, perhaps reminiscent of the glaring, moral void exposed in an earlier film The Silence (Tystnaden) (1963).  In the early fifties, Bergman’s films centered on women, shifting with The Silence (Tystnaden) from questions of faith to an absence of faith, to the desperate needs of individual selves in powerfully anguished relationships.  Besides the ache of an immediate personal reality, there are other common Bergman themes, a tormented sexuality, a conflict between two women, an exceptional isolation of the characters, emphasized by constant close ups and empty spaces, and by the dead spaces between characters even when they talk to each other, by an enveloping “silence” of the film.  The beauty and elegance of the two sisters Maria and Karin, Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin, is overwhelming, one in red and the other dressed in black, but underneath the rich exteriors lie their real secrets, one emotionally shallow and the other frigid.  This is the original SECRETS AND LIES (1996), a Bergman valentine of anguish, a brilliantly written film filled with reflections of an all but absent heart, by an unseen inner world decorated in the outer world by a blazing red expression spilling over into elegant, beautiful rooms, each completely still, like perfect paintings, artful tableaus with statuesque, but implacable faces filling the empty spaces.  Like Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), these sisters were raised around the turn of the century to be pampered and spoiled by others, by servants and housemaids, always needing to be the center of attention.  Never were they asked to step out of the spotlight and help anyone else, so when they are finally needed, especially by someone in their own family, they fail miserably.  When facing death, life’s choices take on a greater significance, sometimes becoming the essence of living.  One can’t help but be fascinated by the brilliant acting portrayed in the agony of making some of these choices, like deciding what you think you’re supposed to do, what you actually do, or that which we wish we did.  Ultimately, we’d regret less if we spoke more from our own hearts. 

Like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, a class comedy where servants outwit their masters, or like Petra, the sultry servant girl in Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende) (1955), there is no question in Bergman’s mind which class is the most helpless and dysfunctional, with pretentious hearts that are of no use to anyone, stricken with paralysis the moment they’re in trouble, arrogantly ordering the servants or housemaids to clean up after their own messes, the way they always have, in a psychological ritual to minimize the worth of the working class, whose roles are reduced to feeding them, cleaning for them, singing to them, tucking them in at night, comforting them in their arms, if needed, loving them in a way they could never be loved in return.  And for that, throughout time, they are despised.  Bergman recreates his Godless world of The Silence (Tystnaden), where Christianity, as a theory, embraces the human heart, but as a practice, largely ignores it.  Some of the scenes in this film of perfect rooms filled with imperfect people are reminiscent of Kubrick’s white room in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the image of unrealized perfection.  The film opens in a red screen for the credits, followed by brief images of a lyre player, another statue in a misty park, where we hear bells, chimes, gorgeous images of trees silhouetted against the sun’s rays, the ticking of clocks, ringing chimes, little clock statues, then an elegant, beautiful room with deep red carpets, red curtains, red-lined chairs, red walls, as the camera closes in on Agnes, Harriet Andersson, who is lying in bed under a red blanket.  The wordless opening shot lasts about 7 minutes, which includes one of the most harrowing scenes in cinema, a close up on Agnes’s face as she awakes in the middle of the night to find herself strangling, shifting the mood with shocking suddenness towards the death she has lived with for so long.  She is in pain, dying of cancer, helpless to time.  As it happens, death is to be deferred awhile longer, but for one awful moment, it is in the room, a palpable presence, photographed in the face of the woman who see it.  In the morning, she opens the window, her sister Maria is asleep in a chair in the next room.  Agnes makes an entry into her diary:  “It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  My sisters and Anna are taking it in turns to sit up.”  All the women are wearing white gowns, engulfed in a red velvet, royal red-toned room, fade to red. 

In this manner, the vignettes unfold, usually fading to red at the end.  Maria is in bed with dolls and the chimes of music boxes, little miniature houses filled with tiny figurines.  Anna, the housekeeper, the one truly appealing person in the film, is played by Kari Sylwan, prays for Agnes as we hear a gentle Chopin waltz play in the background.  Occasionally faces are cut off, luminous images divided in two with one side cast in light, the other side dark.  One memorable scene shows Anna undressing, getting into bed with Agnes, offering her bare breast as comfort, an earth mother kissing her, stroking her cheeks and hair in a Renaissance image of maternal love.  But there are also images of a more discomforting kind.  Maria is awakened in the night when Agnes takes a turn for the worse.  Anna is at her door telling her “She’s unconscious, breathing funny.”  Together, they walk down a long dark red corridor, Anna and the two sisters carrying candles.  Agnes is wheezing loudly, gasping for breath, clocks are ticking loudly, Agnes’s wheezes are a death rattle, a close up on her face produces blood curdling yells for help, screaming wildly in the throes of death, in a prolonged still shot of agonized pain and screaming which literally shocks the sisters (and the audience) into the absolute horror of the moment, filling the silence in the theater with an unforgettable, helpless feeling of uncontrolled raw human terror ― and death.  Yet once again, death is deferred awhile longer.  In other moments, with Agnes sleeping in the other room, very much alive, the two sisters, one of whom, Karin, refuses to be physically touched, agree to sell and divide the estate, sending Anna out of the room to discuss giving her notice and offering her a few extra weeks pay, talking about her only in terms of servant help in such degrading language before railing into one another, with Karin initially reflecting on suicide.  “It’s true.  I’ve ― often thought ― of taking my own life.  It's... it’s disgusting.  It’s degrading ― and ― it never ever changes,” dropping a wine glass on the floor in a moment of tears and imperfection, before gathering her fury directed in full force against Maria: 

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 for so long and not say anything?  I know what you’re made of, with your empty caresses and your false laughter.  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!

Yet in minutes, the two are hugging and caressing each other, begging forgiveness before they chatter endlessly to Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Sonata #5, Pierre Fournier - Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite no. 5 - YouTube (3:38), the music used later in SARABAND (2003), their faces now animated and warm, affectionate, concerned, radiant, beautiful.  Their close ups are engulfed in red, as the screen bleeds red.  Once Agnes has finally succumbed, Karin’s husband is no less chilling, “The funeral was tolerable.  No one wept or grew hysterical.”  While serving coffee, this time in Anna’s presence, they again discuss Anna in purely monetary terms, wondering whether to offer her a small sum of money, or perhaps a memento.  But Anna insists on nothing at all, bringing a closure to their futile attempt to speak of her at all.  Once they’ve gone, Anna closes the doors, lights a candle, opens a drawer and pulls out Agnes’s diary, and sits down to read while soft Chopin music plays, Arthur Rubinstein - Chopin Mazurka, Op. 17 No. 4 - YouTube (4:36).

Wednesday, the third of September. A chill in the air tells of autumn’s approach, but the days are still lovely and mild.  My sisters, Karin and Maria, have come to see me.  It’s wonderful to be together again like in the old days.  I’m feeling much better.  We were even able to take a stroll together.  It was a wonderful experience, especially for me, since I haven't been outdoors for so long.  We suddenly began to laugh and run toward the old swing that we hadn’t used 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’m most fond of in all the world were with me.  I could hear them chatting around me.  I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands.  I wanted to cling to that moment, and I 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.”

The final red screen is subtitled in white print:  And so the Cries and Whispers Die Away.

It’s curious how perfect memories remain so elusive, haunting us throughout our lifetimes, perhaps even at the hour of our death, where something utterly unattainable remains just outside our grasp, like a perfect moment that may have only been imagined, or it might have really happened, yet this image has stuck in our heads throughout the years guiding us through moments of torment and pain, offering a hoped for peace or resolution, where there is no anguish or bickering, just a moment of shared happiness in a beautiful setting, achieving a state of grace, like the answer to a prayer.  Bergman creates an image like this where the three sisters and Anna are seen earlier walking joyfully in a garden, pausing at a child’s swing, with Anna gently rocking them, all bathed in an intense light, recalling Agnes’s feeling of happiness that she records in her diary.  These fleeting moments are all the more powerful, offering a cleansing or therapeutic effect, yet it may just be imaginary, a wished for dream.  Maria and Karin, in contrast, have lived frustrating lives of repression and emotional horrors, with Karin mutilating herself to avoid sexual contact with a much older husband she abhors.  This film is about the world of women, where the men are seen as completely useless, unable to grasp the complexities or emotional needs of their wives, yet the women are equally flawed, where Maria’s infidelities drive her husband to attempt suicide.  While Anna depicts a kind of maternal love, where love is sharing pain (something Maria and Karin are simply incapable of), it should be pointed out that both her biological daughter and Agnes, the patient under her care, end up dead.  Wrapped in suffering, death, memory and regret, this film examines through flashbacks, fantasies and intimate dreams just how significant these rooted impressions are incorporated into the human psyche, but also reveals just how unprepared we are in facing the inevitability of death.  Cancer may take the life of one of the sisters, but emotional repression is choking the life out of the other three women, each viewed in their own flashback sequence, dissatisfied with their existing relationships, unable to lead meaningful lives.  A constant theme throughout is having to live with an unending torment of pain in our lives, where suffering is a force that binds us together, including the cries for help and the whispers of resentment, where medicine and religion are unable to provide comfort for a tarnished soul.  In one of his most harrowing films, Bergman reveals the painful truth, set in an immaculate perfection of the period, bathed in red, revealing a suffocating atmosphere and the constant ticking of antique clocks, where humans seem incapable of living up to their lofty view of themselves and are instead revealed to be utterly inept at communicating and sharing love at the moment it’s most desperately needed, where only reveries or dreamed memories reveal how we wish or imagine it could be.  

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