Thursday, October 2, 2014

Whole Lotta Bergman: Cries and Whispers

More like Cries and Whimpers, as this series is definitely going out with one.

Perhaps something about the milquetoast title of this 1972 film caused me to drag my feet on viewing the last film in my mini five-film Bergman series, as it took a whole month after my last movie to watch it, whereas each of the others had taken about two weeks. Whatever the reason, finally watching the movie made me realize that my foot-dragging was justified.

Put simply, with greater elaboration to follow, Cries and Whispers became the only movie in the series that I actively disliked. And I kind of actively disliked it a lot.

Which is strange, in a way, because the film is probably most closely related in theme and overall tone to The Silence, which I think of as my favorite film I watched for this series (yes, even more than Persona). Both The Silence and Cries and Whispers contain estranged sisters, one of whom is very sick, who tell each other they hate each other. And both movies rely so heavily on silence on the soundtrack that each one makes a kind of reference to it in the title.

But that's where the comparison ends.

Cries is set in a palatial mansion sometime in the 19th century. A cancer-stricken woman, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), is in the last days of her life. Her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), are at her deathbed, but they have not been close to Agnes in life for many years now. Only her dutiful and devout servant, Anna (Kari Sylwan), can provide her a modicum of comfort as her physical pain becomes increasingly agonizing. While they are waiting for the inevitable to arrive, the characters indulge in remembrances of their earlier lives in this mansion, when they were younger and comparatively healthier (both physically and mentally). One recalls an affair with a handsome doctor. Another recalls her husband's possible infidelity. A third thinks fondly of her mother, now two decades dead. When Agnes finally passes, the nature of these remembrances grows more surreal, and the women appear as though they may be losing some grasp on their tenuous sanity.

I should probably highlight two crucial differences between Cries and all four of the other films I watched, all of which were made in the 1960s, and three of them within a three-year window:

1) Cries is the only film not set in or close to present day, and

2) Cries is the only film shot in color.

I suspect the second was more a problem for me than the first, considering that two of my most cherished Bergman films -- The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring -- are set in the very distant past, much longer ago than the 19th century. But the second was kind of a big problem. To make another generalization, I just don't think I like color Bergman films very much. That's a very broad statement and one that is easy to poke holes in, considering that the only other color Bergman film I've seen -- Fanny and Alexander -- was a movie I ended up liking quite a bit. Still, when I was watching Fanny and Alexander, and especially as I was struggling to get into it, I noted that it didn't feel like a Bergman film. Seeing Bergman in color was kind of like hearing Charlie Chaplin talk -- there was just something off about it. I like my Bergman in black and white, and that's all there is to it.

What's funny is that this film was actually lauded for its cinematography to the point of winning an Oscar for it. Its deeply saturated red tones were considered by 1972 audiences to be something truly sublime, whereas I found them actively displeasing to look at. But that isn't where this movie's Oscar love ended. I find it quite difficult to believe, since a movie like this wouldn't stand a chance today, but Cries and Whispers was actually nominated for best director and best picture as well. In fact, it was hurried into U.S. theaters in 1972 -- before its Swedish release date -- just to capitalize on its warm festival reception and its potential to garner the numerous Oscar nominations it ended up garnering.

I just don't see it, and it makes me wonder if I am really so out of sync with other people on Ingmar Bergman. I found this film to be a painfully protracted, even torturous exercise. It is so determinedly slow-paced that I could only watch a half-hour of it the first night before falling asleep, but then just to be sure I gave myself plenty of opportunity to fall in line with its rhythms, I watched it again from the start the next night. I didn't get into those first 30 minutes any more on a second viewing, and the movie probably only got worse from there.

Maybe Cries and Whispers was the first time I have been willing to admit to myself that Bergman really may have been the kind of arthouse director you make fun of when exaggerating the pretensions of arthouse directors. Maybe after seeing some of that in his other films, but finding plenty else to redeem them, I truly felt the accumulation overwhelm me by the time he made Cries and Whispers. I mean, even the title is almost self-parody for an arthouse film. A cry and a whisper can each be viewed as excessively dramatic methods of expression, and to intimate that this film is filled to the brim with such excessive expression is almost to point out one's own absurdity.

I've talked around what I didn't like about this movie, so perhaps I should give you a few specifics before I cut out and take an extended Bergman break. What frustrated me so much was this movie's lack of specificity. Although you would never accuse Bergman's dialogue of being purely expository, never before this movie have I found that entire passages of dialogue exist only to be completely abstruse. Bergman may have trafficked in abstractions in other films, but that was the exception rather than the rule, as each of those films have a tangible reality and a definite plot from which they may stray -- which they may come close to entirely abandoning. A movie like Persona may be more explicitly an arthouse film in numerous things about its construction, especially as it calls attention to its own status as a piece of artifice, and includes some imagery that has no textual connection to anything going on in the story. But even Persona has more of a plot than what we get in Cries and Whispers, and when it does go off the rails, it does so with conviction. Cries and Whispers, meanwhile, feels like just an amorphous collection of disconnected dysfunction, punctuated by a few superficially shocking moments and images. It just spins and spins and spins its wheels.

Perhaps the problem is that I never felt that the characters had a relationship with each other, a history that had gotten twisted up into the current version of their reality. Significant chemistry passes between the two women blending identities in Persona, or the family struggling to understand mental illness in Through a Glass Darkly, or the spiritually exhausted pastor and his flock in Winter Light, or the toxic pair of sisters and their son/nephew in The Silence. Not so here. These felt like characters in a Samuel Beckett play, butting up against each other in order to explore existential angst, displaying none of the shared history that makes us care what becomes of them.

One thing I will say about Cries and Whispers, however, is that it makes a fitting final film for this series. Back when I first started, one of my readers suggested that it was useful to consume a lot of Bergman films at once -- not only because you could clearly see the themes that straddled the movies, but because it's interesting to appreciate the troupe of actors with whom Bergman associated himself. And true enough, this movie allowed me to easily look back on the movies I'd seen and view this as kind of a reunion of those performers. Liv Ullman appeared in Persona, the first movie I watched. Harriet Anderson was the star of Through a Glass Darkly, which came next. Then Ingrid Thulin appeared in both Winter Light and The Silence, though I must say I had to go back and check because she seems to have a bit of a chamelon-like ability to alter her appearance. The fact that they all convened for a movie that disappointed me is kind of beside the point.

Okay! This has been a great education on Bergman. Just as a way of wrapping things up, I will list the films in order of my preference, and the star ratings I gave them on Letterboxd:

1. The Silence (1963) - 4 stars
2. Persona (1966) - 4 stars
3. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - 3.5 stars
4. Winter Light (1962) - 3 stars
5. Cries and Whispers (1972) - 2 stars

Now ... who should I do next?

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