...and ever since childhood, i have imagined the soul to be a damp membrane in varying shades of red. “” ingmar bergman
there were whispers moreso than cries, and the cries were of the unbridled and animal variety. all throughout, this film was bergman as usual: unflinchingly spiritual, stylistically immodest, seemingly witholding all expositional gestures in the direction of the audience, characteristically profound. perhaps the only thing atypical of this film in bergman’s filmography is the use of colour.
this is only the eight of bergman’s films that i’ve watched (he made a lot of ‘em) but i felt a sense of graduation to see his work in colour—though it took about fifteen minutes before accepting that i was watching a bergman film, on account of having grown accustomed to the austerity in expression which his black-and-white films adhere to.
spiritual, immodest, profound and austere: have so far been the words that describe my experience of bergman, but nothing of Cries and Whispers could be categorized as austere. the colour red, for example, was splashed all over the screen with such abandon that everything i looked at for several hours thereafter adopted the same blood-dimmed hue. and with grief, there too was an excess of expression across the whole spectrum: from Anna’s quiet and pleading eyes to the hoarse and tearing shrieks that escape from Agnes’ torment. even the little bit of joy, of fresh air at the end, was uncharacteristically flamboyant—at least in contrast to the crimson melancholy that coloured most of the film.
—and that is exactly what i expected of bergman in colour. the blacks and whites in his films always carry a gravity beyond the contrast of shades: the black of the devil’s cassock in The Seventh Seal (1957) and the white of Karin’s lace in The Virgin Spring (1960) could not exist in the same film. it’s only natural that his reds too should have a vivacity of its own very nearly communicated to the tongue…
(liv ullmann’s face)———
“no other director has done more with the human face.” roger scruton on ingmar bergman
quentin tarantino’s foot fetish is no secret—perhaps no other director has done more with the human feet?—(actually luis buñuel was as infatuated with feet too). indubitably, no director more than bergman has focused their lens on the face—and no actor more than liv ullmann has been the subject of that lens.
hers is the prototypical meaty german face (save for the fact that she’s swedish)—nevertheless, she fits the phenotype: a face with high cheekbones; heavy eyelids; chin, lips and nose wrapped in more than their fair share of muscle and sinew. sandra hüller (Toni Erdmann, 2016) too belongs to this category of facial architecture.
for bergman, ullmann’s face has always been a subject of its own, separate from the characters she portrayed: her Elizabeth Vogler is perhaps the most famous example of ullmann’s face in front of bergman’s camera—her and bibi andersson share a near claustrophobic amount of screentime wherein a close-up of their faces achieves a colossal scale. in The Hour of the Wolf (1968)—another claustrophobic twosome, alongside max von sydow—the stark lighting accentuates the architecture of her face, with all its attendant slopes, cliffs and sudden turns.
with Cries and Whispers, the obsession is more apparent. in a nearly 5 minute saga, ullmann’s face is anatomically analyzed by Dr. David (with whom she maintains a failing extramarital affair). the excesses which the film indulges in colour and emotion is present too in this awkward and misplaced analysis:
Indifference. And this fine contour from your ear to your chin is no longer so finely drawn - the result of too much comfort and laziness. And there, by the bridge of your nose. Why do you sneer so often? You see that? You sneer too often. You see it? And look under your eyes. The sharp, scarcely noticeable wrinkles from your boredom and impatience.
“” David— Cries and Whispers
my day job is as an optometric assistant, i thereby spend half my day sitting in the dark and looking at eyes with the use of five inexplicably precise and cycloptic instruments: each with a particular metric on the anatomy of the eye. but i’ve found that the eyes—amongst the entire anatomy of the face—reveal the least information about a person’s state of mind. it is the network of muscles, flesh, wrinkles and contours around the eyes that convey the contents that populate our basements of emotion. that two people maintain eye contact is merely proof to one another that neither is under the kind of scrutiny that ullmann’s face is under. to look deeply into the eyes, instead of face, is to disarm oneself of the most effective tool of inspection…
(the colours of grief)———
not since krzysztof kieślowski’s Bleu (1993) has grief been so decidedly condensed and expressed by a colour as it is in Cries and Whispers. Bleu was the first installation in kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy, which he described as anti-tragedy, though the premise of the film is tragedy of the unbearable sort. the grief of the main character Julie (juliette binoche) is expressed silently and stoically. the weight of her suffering is immeasurable: it’s expanse is slow and without any urgency, like the sea. i think that’s what i’m getting at, that i think of as blue grief: blue is the colour of grief without any urgency.
red too is the colour of grief. of a restless and painful suffering. with red, grief and pain are in concert. the expanse of that pain might not be immense—it might even fit in the palm of your hands—but the heat discharged by this apparatus of grief is terribly urgent and terribly intimate. red grief is the sort that inspired sylvia plath’s poem Tulips; in it her attention is concentrated on a vase of tulips by her window, and she is a reclined position in a gurney:
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
[...] Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
Tulips, sylvia plath
this ‘correspondence’ between the tulips and her wound is the sort that makes possible any kind of proximity towards health. what is vital is that this wound responds to intimations of health—that is the significance of red grief, that the pain lies close to the surface. unlike the blue depths of an irredeemable silence. Cries and Whispers is in this sense an exhibition of grief that is communicated with a sense of urgency, with intimations of hope. even apart from the fresh air that garden stroll that makes up the final scene, all throughout this film there were intimations of renewal, or at least the possibility of renewal. especially and most potentially so for the timid and forbearing maid Anna.who imagine what joy is still possible for someone who has remained so long in a state of blue gestation.
(in summa summarum)———i give this film 4.36 liv ullman close-ups out of 5 liv ullman crow’s feet.