Cries And Whispers - Tone & Atmosphere

Thoughts On: Cries And Whispers (1972)

A woman slowly dies of cancer as her 2 sisters and maid look on, helpless.

Cries And Whispers is probably my favourite Ingmar Bergman picture and is certainly one of his best. Having been granted vast critical acclaim, it is undeniable that, despite its ambiguous, hard to comprehend narrative design, that this is a filmic masterpiece. As both the writer and the director, Bergman has then crafted a film best described by Roger Ebert:

"Cries and Whispers" is like no movie I've seen before, and like no movie Ingmar Bergman has made before; although we are all likely to see many films in our lives, there will be few like this one.

Like no other film I know, Cries And Whispers draws you into characters and their situation in a way that is so personal that they almost become tangible figures. That is to say that you feel as if you can almost reach out and grasp the atmosphere this film creates because of perfectly played and written characters meeting masterful direction. The films you then could best compare Cries And Whispers to are Tarkovsky's The Mirror, Dreyer's Ordet and Welles' Citizen Kane. Like Tarkovsky, Bergman has a profound and highly modernist approach to cinema that tests the bounds established by more traditional narratives. We see this correlation between The Mirror and Cries And Whispers particularly for the way that 'dream sequences' and 'flashbacks' are integrated into their narratives to produce non-linear, unconventional stories.

Tarantino has probably been most famously vocal about the subject of flashbacks and dream sequences. He has said that:

I've always thought that the closer we can hitch movies to books, the better off movies will be. There's a complexity to a novel that you don't get in original screenplays. A novel thinks nothing of starting in the middle of its story. And if a novel goes back in time, it's not a flashback, it's so you learn something. The flashback is a personal perspective.

I chose this quote as it best articulates the approach to narrative that Tarkovsky and Bergman take in their films, The Mirror and Cries And Whispers, in a simplistic manner. The flashback can be more than just exposition, it can be an artistically manipulated projection of a character's perspective. But, whilst Tarantino famously plays with non-linear narrative, he is certainly not the first. Moreover, his words, nor what they reflect in his films, are the best representation for this idea of a novel-esque movie that projects personal perspective through alleged flashback. Pulp Fiction is, structurally, as interesting as Citizen Kane or Rashomon in my opinion. But, in terms of 'personal perspective' being projected in any of Tarantino's films, I have to say that his efforts aren't the best. Both Tarkovsky and Bergman on the other hand move into their characters' inner worlds in a masterful manner; in a uniquely cinematic way that expresses so much about them as well as enriches narrative with subtext. This cannot be explained in just a few simple sentences, so I'll leave the subject of what The Mirror or Cries And Whispers mean at rest for now. However, through these films we see a profoundly cinematic approach to projecting character as to capture tone or atmosphere. And it's this detail of atmosphere that best links the two said films. As I've previously discussed when talking about what I see to be a Monologue Paradox, The Mirror and Cries And Whispers alike manage to lull you into a trance whereby everything about the films encapsulates your senses leaving you lost in an intangible world of the story. This is the crux of what links Cries and Whispers and The Mirror; their directorial capacity to generate this Monologue Paradox. (For more on The Monologue Paradox, click here).

Cries And Whispers is a much more character-driven film than The Mirror, however. After all, we never even meet our main character, nor get to feel his personal presence, rather, assimilate our own thoughts on who he is. Whilst this has its merits, I'm certainly more drawn to Bergman's approach to character. Like Dreyer manages with Ordet, Bergman uses his characters as sympathetic bodies through which we can uncover unfathomable existential concepts of life and death. You could in fact argue that Cries And Whispers is a much more cryptic and dark version of the story we see in Ordet - one that even features a lost love one being revived. However, there is another distinguishing element to Cries And Whispers that separates it from The Mirror as well as Ordet and brings it closer to a film like Citizen Kane.

Kane, famously, is a film that utilises unreliable narrators. In such, we get to learn about Kane through his many peers - who all have their own take on just who he is, leaving the essence of his character in the ambiguously symbolic rosebud. Cries And Whispers, through theme, takes a very similar approach to its narrative. The crucial element of this narrative is found in its final lines after the positive effects of Agnes' death have more or less worn away. In her diary, Agnes then says about being with her sisters:

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.

This is the only explicit movement we get into Agnes' head, the sister who is dying of cancer - and, by this point, has died. Her death is a bitter, painful and cold one that fails to bring her sisters together. This seemingly leaves these final words as a pessimistic critique of the sisters who cannot come together. I don't believe that this is the singular purpose of the narrative, however. The build of the narrative reaches this crescendo as all we see through the two sisters and their maid contributes to these words. In such, all that precedes this final scene explains and explores Agnes' confrontation with mortality. So, like Citizen Kane uses many unreliable narrators to explore themes of greed and power in Charles, Cries And Whispers uses unreliable narrators to explore themes of mortality in Agnes.

In realising this, we have the frame work to delve into what this film is about. However, as said, we're going to save that. I bring up Citizen Kane, Ordet and The Mirror to make the point that Cries And Whispers takes some of the best aspects from some of the best films ever made to construct its narrative. This is exactly what makes this film so special and the experience of watching it so unique. The lesson I then see in Cries And Whispers is all to do with tone and atmosphere. Whilst there is an atmosphere in this film that is just as immersive as something Tarkovsky may conjure, there is also a great sense of theme and character - of which we see presented through the works of Dreyer and Welles. What Bergman then demonstrates is how to build highly complex narratives around themes and ideas. In his screenplay, he pulls from characters their most deep-seated mannerism and traits and demonstrates how they manifest themselves as well as how they effect their lives. This is the significance of his prose which we can later explore by pulling apart the narrative. But, because this is a cinematic form where a screenplay becomes a film, direction, how Bergman captures atmosphere and characters in the camera, is our current focus.

To then explore how Bergman produces such an enveloping atmosphere and tone we only have to look to the opening of Cries And Whispers. We start with the opening titles...

With this we get two essential elements. The first is the chiming rhythm which is carried throughout the film - usually with clocks...

The clocks represent the two main motivations for all characters in this film. Everyone is waiting, sometimes for Agnes to die, sometimes for her to overcome her illness. Nonetheless, everyone is waiting for the situation that time has trapped them in to be over. Bergman makes this idea cinematic, through his rhythm and this imagery, by generating a rather paradoxical response from the audience. Whilst time and its physical presence in a film is often used to add tension...

... the presence of clocks and their ticking in the opening of Cries And Whispers is oddly relaxing and has the effect of suspending you. This is so ingenious as it gives the film a slow, yet hypnotic pace that has you drift without time as all four women must be - without a satisfying grip on the ticking clocks. And so, whilst we are swept away by the pace of this movie and the temporal element of the film, the characters within are trapped by it, wanting to put an end to Agnes' suffering (sometimes for selfish reasons). This is the first example of how Bergman uses character to create tone and then imbue meaning into his narrative that we physically feel when watching the story unfold.

Coming back to the opening titles, we also see here...

... red. And crimson is of course a pivotal motif that we often fade to...

... or are surrounded by...

This decadent pallet given to Cries And Whispers is probably the most striking aspect of it. Bergman clearly intended for this and has said that "All of my films can be thought of in terms of black and white, except Cries and Whispers". Colour is so important as it's the many shades of red that give a great sense of warmth to this film. Being enclosed in red walls brings about such a homely sensation as not only does the crimson signal heat, but is linked to the familial themes of Cries And Whispers. And, as with almost every single one of Bergman's films, there is a maternal strain in this film with all of the women having conflicts as mothers or with their mother. The red walls then serve almost as a womb for these women and is certainly a place where an idea of blood relations is questioned. Beyond this, the stark juxtaposition of white and red suggests a naivety caught within a range of emotions that red may symbolise. As we could all infer, red may suggest love, hate, blood, cessation (stopping), heat, passion or anger. With white often symbolising naivety or purity, we can see that these women are openly confronting all that red represents. We see this through the spectra of emotion in this film as everyone tries to deal with Agnes' decline. And so, not only does colour in Cries And Whispers have intellectual subtext in relation to character, but it sets a tone for us, as an audience, to sit in. And so, again, we see how Bergman communicates to the audience through atmosphere and tone under the guise of theme and character.

Another key element to the opening is composition...

Bergman's play with light and framing in this film is astounding. We see this also in this shot:

Like Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon, Bergman shoots masterful static compositions that mimic great art work and paintings. This puts Cries And Whispers in a time and place, but without time becoming a character. As with many costume pictures, Barry Lyndon is just as much about a character as it is 18th century Ireland and Britain. However, Cries And Whispers, whilst it has clear elements, namely costumes, of an older time (late 19th century), doesn't allow this to take attention away from narrative, instead, simply support it. This is so significant in my opinion as it brings us closer to characters whilst providing a sense or tone of context.

The final aspects of Cries And Whispers that give it a masterful tone and atmosphere can be seen in this long shot:

Like in Dreyer's The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, close-up is pivotal to telling this story. Knowing this, Bergman will always linger on faces and sometimes hands. In such, he generates a succinct focus on eyes, lips, skin, touch and the mouth. This is so important because this film is largely about intimacy, about characters being able to be close (or not) to each other. With the constant focus on characters' sensory elements (eyes, lips, skin, mouths), Bergman sets up this aspect of the movie like Hitchcock would an explosion; the metaphorical bomb is shown on screen time and time again. Instead of providing tension, however, in Cries And Whispers this repetition and focus brings us closer to characters, giving us an intimate understanding of, and sense of relation to, them. This is often combined with zooms or composition to enunciate Bergman's cinematic language. In such, when Bergman zooms into a close-up, we often come to understand that an inner-turmoil unsettles characters. But, when we are not in close-up, when characters are framed in mid-shot, we understand that there is something else wrong, something between characters. The best scene to demonstrate this would be the following:

After recovering from an excruciating fit of agony, Agnes' sisters decide to read to and brush her hair, leaving Anna to fall into the backdrop. Through zooms, close-ups and isolating three-shots/four-shots, Bergman imbues so much subtext into this scene, demonstrating how the sisters aren't close at all, but putting on an act that is transparently contrived - and Agnes as well as Anna (the maid) know this. In contrast, this is what Bergman shows us true closeness is:

It's then through this scene that you can see the eloquence of Bergman's cinematic language. But, if we return to this early long shot...

... we can piece in the final major piece of the puzzle. When first watching this movie, this jumped out at me and, surprisingly, I instantaneously accepted it. Throughout this shot, we hear every minute move of Agnes; the sheets rustling, her breath, even the saliva she swallows. We're physically brought so close to Agnes, through sound, that, on paper, you may question why Bergman would do this. Why must we hear the saliva going down her throat? Isn't that rather off-putting? It turns out, not really. Bergman brings us to this auditory scale as it is like we are actually in Agnes' head. After all, if you swallow right now, you'd hear yourself just as you hear Agnes in many parts of the movie. And so it's sound design that is the last major element of Cries And Whispers. Not only does it give pace and rhythm, as discussed, but it brings us closer to characters, demonstrating isolation as well as perspective - again, providing character and subtext through tone and atmosphere.

The lasting importance of Cries And Whispers, on a formal level, is then how Bergman gives a physicality to cinema. He makes story an almost tangible object by creating an atmosphere we can't help but feel extends across the boundaries of a screen. So, just as his characters will often break the fourth wall...

... Bergman will always be leaning on it, communicating to the audience through a sensory and highly cinematic veneer we can best define as tone or atmosphere.

Click here for the second post discussing the narrative meaning of Cries And Whispers.

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Cries And Whispers - Graceful Mortality

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