Red rooms: Memories of "Cries and Whispers"

                  “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
                  The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
                  The stiff Heart questions, was it He, that bore,
                  And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

                  […] This is the Hour of Lead—
                  Remembered, if outlived,
                  As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
                  First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—”

                                                                                Emily Dickinson

I thought of Dickinson’s poem upon recently re-watching Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973), a film about great pain as it is experienced and witnessed by four women, one of whom, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), lies dying of a chronic illness.  The women occupy an isolated country house somewhere in Sweden in the early 1900s, and while men (husbands, a doctor, a priest) occasionally appear theirs is private female world in which they move as if along an invisible chessboard, brushing up against each other, approaching and retreating, touching and pulling away.  And always watching.  Bergman’s camera watches, too, silent and unflinching, as Agnes’ face and body contort with agony.  Like Dickinson, Bergman sees beauty and horror in pain, as well as a sort of grace that comes from confronting something sublime and terrible.  We might call that sublime and terrible thing death—the moment toward which all of the film’s relentlessly ticking clocks seem to be pushing.  

I have a particularly special relationship with Cries and Whispers because it was one of the first foreign films I ever saw: it served as a kind of gateway drug into the world of art-house cinema.  I began watching it after school on cable TV around age thirteen.  I had heard of the film’s title from a couple of books but I knew almost nothing about what it was about and had never seen anything by Bergman before.  Later I would read Roger Ebert’s review, which was instrumental in helping me to understand what I had seen.  From the very opening sequence my attention was rapt.  The film proceeded to lull me into something like a hypnotic trance for the next ninety minutes (perhaps it was the rhythm of all of those clocks).        

Bergman does things in Cries and Whispers that I never knew a filmmaker could do.  The use of silence, the extreme emotional intensity of the characters, the tactile sense of physical objects and their weight (like the pen that Ingrid Thulin drops onto a ledger)—Bergman uses all of this to create an imaginary world like none I had seen before in a film.  I hadn’t intended to watch Cries and Whispers in its entirety that afternoon, but that’s exactly what happened.  I was mesmerized by the atmosphere of that house and by the faces of the women, which seemed to come swimming out of backgrounds of pure red and black.  More so than in any other Bergman film with the exception of Persona, faces in Cries and Whispers are rendered elemental, abstract.  The faces of Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullman, and Kari Sylwan are like landscapes; seen in extreme close-up, there appears to be nothing beyond them—except, of course, that red, red house with its shadows and dreams and pain.

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