Cries And Whispers - Graceful Mortality

Thoughts On: Cries And Whispers (1972)

We've just covered this film in the previous post, discussing its form, Bergman's direction and links to a few other movies. What we are left to discuss is the narrative and so what this film means...

Cries And Whispers is essentially a film about the test one is put to when facing death. And in such, it is a film about two sisters trying to come to terms with mortality. The essential statement of the film, in my eyes, is then that learning the worth of people takes both fear and perspective, a perspective which connotes an idea of grace. To understand the film, I believe you only have to understand the power of this image in respect to the narrative...

This is probably the most iconic image of the Cries And Whispers and it depicts Anna cradling the 'deceased' Agnes. Deceased is in quotes as this image falls within a surreal sequence in which Agnes' dead body talks to her two sisters and Anna. It's in this scene that the test of Karin and Maria's reaction to mortality plays out. Agnes asks Karin, the oldest and most distant sibling, to take her hands and warm her. She denies her, saying that the request is repulsive and then leaves. Agnes then asks Maria, the younger sister who is flirtatious and impulsive, to also take her hands. Maria tries, she takes her hand, but cannot handle Agnes trying to kiss her and so she has to escape, she has to flee the room. This leaves Agnes on the floor. But, Anna returns, picks her up and cradles her as depicted above.

So, let's back-track quickly. Before this scene is the sequence in which Karin and Maria struggle to come closer. Maria initially asks Karin, a few days or hours (it's difficult to say for definite) after Agnes' funeral, why they can't be close. The response is primarily that Karin can't handled to be touched. After some time and a larger confrontation where Karin admits that she hates Maria, the two embrace and seemingly open up to each other. This sequence is pivotal as there is a truth revealed and then faced by Karin. Instead of remaining silent, she voices all that probably whirs around in her head; ideas that she hates all that are close to her - thoughts that are so easily bottled up. But, having voiced these 'true feelings', Karin is forced to face the reality of them. Saying to Maria that she hates her causes her to break down, suggesting she sees the vindictive spite in her words with a sudden burst of empathy in which she understands how she must seem to Maria. So, instead of harbouring emotions and keeping them protected from the world, Karin actually confronts them before another person.

Moving further back, we come to the sequence in which we get Karin's flashback. This is one of the hardest scenes to watch as it depicts a cold relationship between Karin and her husband that leads her to mutilate her genitals by forcing glass into herself. She does this to smear blood on her face and show her husband, what I assume to be, anything that suggests she's alive, that she is a person; his wife. This ludicrous act is the result of Karin bottling herself up for so long, it is her pleading for something, anything; a reaction from her husband - sexual, emotional, anything.

The only information we're given that implies why Karin is the way she is, is Maria. To compare Maria's flashback to Karin's we see two very similar instances of self-harm. Whilst Karin mutilates herself, Maria's husband stabs himself in the stomach having found out (or presumed correctly) that she cheated on him. So, whilst an unresponsive, uncaring husband is the catalyst for bloodshed in Karin's flashback, an unresponsive, uncaring wife is the catalyst for bloodshed in Maria's. We can thus imagine the relationship between these girls as they grew up was one with great tension. As we find out in the opening flashback, Maria was the main source of their mother's attention. She bathed in affection and love and this explains why she searches after it in the doctor. He, like her mother, is an authority figure who may shower her with love, who acts as a kind of challenge. There is thus a sadomasochistic sense of affection in Maria - love is almost a game to her. But, whilst Maria has the emotional spine to play these games, it seems that Karin refuses to play. In not even being mentioned in the flashback sequence, we can imagine Karin to be the oldest sister that fell out of the spotlight of her mother's affection quickly - maybe being the only one who was critiqued and blamed--which explains her formality and rigidity. What this sets up is two daughters who have terrible relationships with a concept of affection or love - who will certainly find it difficult to relate to one another.

Knowing this, we can come back to the scene in which they come together. Having this idea of their faults and perceptual/emotional downfalls voiced, Karin and Maria find a new and equal plane of truth where it is ok to open up to one another. However, the tension remains. This is what is exposed in the scene where the 'deceased' Agnes asks them to show affection toward her. Karin cannot release her fears of affection and Maria cannot indulge the lie she spins. After all, it is the game Maria plays with an idea of togetherness and affection that is the wrench in the cogs. As is shown when she tries to seduce David, the doctor whom she had an affair with previously, after treating Agnes early on in the film, Maria wants the conflict of a game to underlie her acts of affection - and this seems to be why she cheats. This also seems to be why she cannot be fully open or honest with Agnes, let alone express actual love. Her dead sister poses no threat or authority, she is not cold and Maria does not have to win her over. There is thus no competition, just true affection with Agnes, which makes Maria incredibly uncomfortable. This is why she runs away from her.

What Bergman is clearly depicting through these two sisters is a conflict I believe is universally understandable. It is incredibly hard to be open, honest and truly loving. It seems that we all have significant people in our lives, be it a parent, sibling, friend or partner, that, no matter what, there seems to be an insurmountable conflict with. And in such, we all have people that we know we should love, that we know we should be fair and honest with, but simply cannot bring ourselves to be completely close or open with. What Bergman demonstrates, through Agnes' flashback, is why this seems to be the case. In short, we have difficult relationships with parents and siblings because they're formed when we are children. This is one of the strangest ideas that we rarely confronted in a transparent manner. We are born as bundles of fat, slobber, poop, puke and gums. Our parents love us, they take care of us, they teach us and watch us grow up and away from this state of utter weakness, dependence and reliance. And as we grow, we get stronger, more intelligent, we become people of our own. This become most apparent between teen boys and their fathers and has been portrayed a plethora of times in movies. One recent example I can raise is seen in Fences. Troy, as played by Denzel Washington, watches his son grow up to hate him. And this vitriol reaches a point where there is that old-as-time confrontation between a father and a son where there's an idea raised that 'I'm not afraid of you anymore' and 'I could beat you up, old man'. We won't delve into details of how this plays out in Fences, but, my point is simply that this teenager that is on the cusp of adulthood who is standing up to his father in a physical altercation was once a baby in his father's arms. This baby has grown to get to this position, has developed this deep-seated conflict, because there is a horrible tension of authority and power between a developing person and those that knew and looked after him in his weaker states. This is exactly why puberty is so hard. It's not so much about hormones, sex and development, but the conflict of authority that you face in becoming an adult.

We all have things in us that aren't perfect, things that make us who we are, especially when it comes to the bad relationships we seem to feed and maintain. This is what we see in Cries And Whispers. There is a conflict between these three girls because they have grown up together, have gradually developed authority, physical strength and intellectual prowess of their own. But, because this conflict was pushed aside and left to silently exist between these girls, their mother and other authority figures in their childhood, there are various poisoned relationships that have survived to this point in their life.

Understanding this, we can take a step back from the narrative and question where Anna fits into all of this. There are two fascinating aspects to Anna. The first is that she is a maid and the second is that she has lost a child. Whilst I don't know what it is to actually be a maid, I feel I have an empathetic sense of what it means to serve someone, to live your life, very literally and blatantly, as a figure at the bottom of the pack. Having said this, humans love ambiguity when it come to social situations. We love sports, reality TV, fights and debates because that ambiguity is played with. In all of these competing events, there is a constant question of hierarchy being asked. It's always, who's right; who's wrong; who's biggest; who's smartest; who's strongest; who's fastest? These questions are always answered when the victor's hand is raised and thus we see that humans do seek a cathartic break from an ambiguous question of where someone's place in the world is. However, after the victor's hand is raised, we know they have to defend their title; to try and win the next competition after all points are set to zero again. And in such, we see only a momentary need for truth and a yearning for that ambiguity, for questions of where people stand in a hierarchy. This is so integral to human society and rarely does this paradigm of social ambiguity fade away, or be made transparent. In the case of Anna, however, we see that it does. She knows her place in the house. And it's not even as if she has any other maids to socialise with, to engage in a socially ambiguous atmosphere with. This would drive many people insane and would probably lead them to stab their masters/mistresses in their sleep and then set the house on fire. Not Anna though - and this is what is so intriguing about her.

We also cannot forget that Anna has lost her child, but has faith that God has taken her baby away from her with reason. So, with Anna, we see a hopeful transcendence of this idea of ambiguity - existentially and socially. She refuses to question why her daughter was taken, but assures herself that there was reason and so can find solace in her solitude. This is so important to realise as a similar paradigm of coming to terms with ambiguity, chaos and arbitrariness plays out in our pivotal image...

Love is the crux of all we have discussed thus far. All characters, under the guise of childhood and socially ambiguous hierarchy, have conflicts with love. As described, Karin and Maria cannot grasp or express love. However, Anna can - and this is because of the lessons she has learnt through losing a child.

Life brings with it many ambiguities; questions of who, what, where, when, how and certainly why. These are such pressing existential questions to all people as we know our lives are finite. And so, because we will die, we revere life; because we face great ambiguity, we hold onto what we know. Love is tantamount to holding onto what you know. This is because you can overcome, as Anna does, the conflicts of ambiguity life presents with faith, trust and a love in something. Love, like faith, is an illusion of togetherness. And so it is a way to feel bonds; the strength of a crowd. Anna loves God, just like Agnes (just like millions of people do), because God is the highest idea of power humans have ever conceived of. To love God, to feel like you are bonded with God, is to feel apart of the greatest power and authority in the universe. This, without providing anyone real or tangible answers, gives them a profound emotional sense of ease - all because God is all-knowing and there is no ambiguity in life to God. This is how Anna seems to be able to carry on in life having lost her baby daughter. Having trust, or faith, that God has answers and the power to look after her allows Anna to let go. In the same sense that people love and bond to a God, they will also bond with one another. This is what we describe as love in relationships. Love is something we use to say that another person is a significant part of you and that you have a great sense of trust in them. We come to love people by then exposing ourselves to them, by showing them weakness. This is why both emotions and sex are so important between couples. Not only, through emotions and communication, do we give a sense of what's going on in our heads to the other people as to sustain a bond of love, but, through sex and other physical acts, we provide tangible actions of our own commitment and affection. The same can be said for all relationships beyond couples. However, instead of sex, the physical acts are often ones of material exchange or simply hugs, kisses or some kind of touch. Without these, people's relationships breakdown as there is no trust, no belief, in a love between people.

Having said this, I think it becomes very transparent what the scene where Karin and Maria run out on Agnes means. These two cannot actually love or present evidence for a bond between themselves and their dead sister by staying with her and taking her hand. The reason why comes back to ambiguity and childhood; they refuse to state or come to terms with where they are in relation to Agnes on a social scale - they want to hold onto ambiguity. However, Anna is perfectly comfortable with having it clear where she and Agnes stand with each other. Anna takes care of Agnes in an emotional sense, which reflects back some amount of emotional well-being to Anna as she feels apart of something. But, Agnes also takes care of Anna in a material sense, providing her a home and food. Again, this reflects back to Agnes, as home is only home when Anna is around and Anna also feeds/provides food for Agnes in her weakened state. So, there is a clear bond and understanding between these two women that is not present between anyone else in the film. What's so interesting about this is the juxtaposition between God, human relationships and the ambiguity faced in respect to the idea of faith or love. Whilst God provides solace in spite of the ambiguity of life to people such as Anna, God is an intangible being that you may never truly encounter. People and the love you feel for them also provide solace in spite of a social ambiguity. However, people are real - they are in front of us; we can reach out and touch them. This is why there's such a distinguished conflict between having faith in people close to us and a higher power. The faith in people that we call love is a bond that is much more pressing and inescapable. And so it's the nature of this trust in people as tangible beings that results in it being so hard to truly connect with people. What's then so special about Anna and Agnes' relationship is that they have found a balance. Whilst there is a trust, a love, a respect, an openness and understanding between them, there is a physicality given to their relationship. This is exactly why they share a skin-to-skin contact in their most intimate moments...

It's all about security; knowing where you stand with someone. I hope now that the power and significance of this image is clear. And having this clarity, we can push on to the final scene of the narrative. Having opened up to one another, then denounced their dead sister, Karin and Maria fall silent, they refuse to talk about their relationship, nor how they connected and they sell the house, leaving Anna without a job or home. We thus see that there is no change, that the conflicts between Karin and Maria are not overcome after their experience with death - their sister's mortality. What we then see is that they fail to learn from the lesson provided. They lost someone close to them and do not manage to come to terms with who she was and what her worth was. Only Anna seems to understand and see Agnes in such a light. The only silver lining is provided with Agnes and Maria splitting to go take care of their own families. The significance of this is provided when we, again, hear the following words from Agnes' diary...

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.

We hear these words as the sisters walk, in their white dresses, and talk to one another. What this suggests is that Agnes, in her terrible health, came to terms with what must have been her conflicts with love as she grew up. She finds gratitude for life because she sees the worth of the people around her - the fact that they help quash the overwhelming ambiguity of life in an everyday and social sense; they help her face her mortality with a calm grace. So, in this statement, we see that Agnes, like Anna, has found some sense of enlightenment and maybe a key to a graceful existence where life and people do not beat her down, pin her to reflex and an existence dictated by external forces (such as a childhood). The crux of the film then lies in colour symbolism. As suggested in the previous post, the crimson represents many things (love, anger, passion, blood, hatred...) whilst white is quite simply purity or naivety. The kind of purity Bergman means to connote with Agnes, Anna and the two sisters, who are often enveloped in white, is one of grace. For the four women to end the film in white dresses, free from crimson walls and in an idyllic natural setting, suggests equilibrium; that, just as Agnes knows love and gratitude in this moment, so may her sisters. Colour symbolism suggests that all that is ambiguous in life and emotionally provocative (red) can be overwhelming, but come to terms with once that ambiguity is overcome, is learnt to be dealt with and managed, providing a graceful and peaceful naivety (white).

So, in the end, this film is a complex exploration of ambiguity, trust, love and mortality as forces at play in the lives of all people. With the ending comes a question of if Karin and Maria may find balance and resolution later in life, but also a suggestion that they already know this equilibrium. Because they are sisters, they have an inevitable bond, just as we all do with someone. They cannot perceive or capitalise on the balance that belies this relationship , but there is always time. With time, stifling emotions may be managed and a more accepting bond embraced. And such is the timeless and eloquent message of Cries And Whispers in my perspective.

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