Monday, October 26, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman)

(Originally posted on 3 August 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

When I first learned of Ingmar Bergman's death, the first film I thought of was Cries and Whispers, which was the first film of his I saw way back in high school. Watching it for the first time, I recognized his style already, thanks to endless imitations, but I was unprepared for the real thing. I was blown away by his use of color, those bottomless blacks and bloody reds, which I discovered later was the color Bergman pictured for the inside of the soul. But my love of the film went deeper than that — I really responded to his worldview, miles removed from the insipid smiling faces of Hollywood cinema. In short, Bergman's perspective spoke to me more.

In the years since, I've grown to love many other Bergman films — particularly Smiles of a Summer Night, Shame, and Fanny and Alexander — but my love for Cries and Whispers has never waned. Watching it again the night after he died, I was once again drawn into the world of pious, suffering Agnes, her sisters, childlike Maria and bitter Karin, and her devoted servant Anna. It's a world full of loneliness and despair, and these things don't stop once Agnes passes away.

But the final scene of Cries and Whispers offers a reprieve from the darkness. After Agnes' death, Anna keeps her mistress' diary, and she retires to her bedroom to read it. As she reads aloud, the film flashes back to one of Agnes' rare good days, in which she took a leisurely stroll with Karin, Maria and Anna. In Agnes' words:

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.'

One striking thing about the scene was how different the colors are from the rest of the film — no blacks or reds, but sun-drenched autumnal hues. But another contrast is Agnes herself. Up to this point, she's always been in pain, but here she seems, if not well, then at least better. Likewise, her sisters are friendly to each other, whereas they're usually civil at best. In a film that's so full of violence — physical and psychological, real and imagined — this is a rare sublime moment, one that Agnes rightly treasures.

Of all the basic emotions Bergman dealt in, the one I respond to most is loneliness. In Bergman's world, loneliness is everywhere, not only when we feel isolated at a party, but also when we fear that no one is there to hear our prayers. We die alone, and so too do we live alone, hemmed in by our own desires and impulses. So when we can really connect to each other, if only for a little while, it's special. Above all, Bergman understood that these fleeting moments can make all the loneliness bearable, and for that reason I feel profoundly grateful to Bergman, who gave us all so much.

1 comment:

James said...

I just saw this film for the first time a couple weeks ago. I greatly admired it, but had to sit on it a while. I've seen few films that match its sense of despair, but even more powerful to me was the isolation of these people, whose attempts to connect with others made me think of a firing pin striking an empty cartridge. It's an amazing work, really, that crafts something so cerebral yet emotional.