In the summer of 2003, documentary filmmaker Marie Nyreröd interviewed Ingmar Bergman in his home on the island of Fårö, in the process of making three one-hour documentaries about his life and work that aired on Swedish television the following year. At the same time, she recorded several short conversations with him, staged in his private screening room, in which they discussed several of his movies - these were played as introductions to the films when they themselves aired on television. Most of these run to about three minutes, and are the usual "tell me how you make your movies" anecdotes: a few thoughts about where the idea for the film came from, one or two stories about the production, followed by Bergman admitting that he doesn't think the thing turned the way he wanted it to. The one exception to this is the introduction to 1972's Cries and Whispers: it runs a whopping seven minutes, and rather than consisting of punchy anecdotes, even punchy anecdotes told in a dour way, the longest stretch of the video consists of the 85-year-old Bergman slowly and with visible effort casting himself back to the place in his life in the early 1970s where the idea arrived in the form of a persistent image in his brain of four women dressed in white standing in a red room. To even get that far, let alone to explain how the script was written and the film was produced, clearly costs the director: he seems almost to enter a hypnotic state, carving the words out of himself as he stares at nothing and is visibly, deeply overwhelmed by the weight of that image, which seems to trouble him even after more than thirty years had passed.

That is, I think, a succinct enough way of getting at the sheer miserable potency of Cries and Whispers: decades later, even the man who made it gets a little dazed when he has to confront it head-on. It would be hard to call this Bergman's "heaviest" film, when his back catalogue includes Winter Light, a movie about how God stopped paying attention to us and all there is for it now is to die, but this is a close second place. For this, too, is a film about death: waiting for it, witnessing it, coping with it. It is, as far as I have seen, cinema's most unrelenting attempt to grapple with the terrible mystery of one of the only two events (after being born) that every single human being will experience during their lifetime. It approaches this theme, and the characters who are confronted with it, with something close to the polar opposite of subtlety; but I do not think that subtlety was its goal. One of the things that Cries and Whispers tends to reinforce for me is the reality that, when all is said and done, Bergman was making movies for a mass audience - given his position at the forefront of the 1950s and 1960s art film revolution in Europe and the United States, this is perhaps a ridiculous thing to claim, and yet there is a sense in which almost all of his movies were built in terms of a viewer's emotional experience, not a critic's intellectual experience. This is the one trafficking in the most brutally essentialised, primitive emotions, and thus the one where that characteristic is perhaps easiest to notice. Not for nothing that Cries and Whispers was picked up for distribution in North America by Roger Corman, of all people, who gave the film its world premiere in December 1972, pushing it to five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and one of the largest box-office hauls of Bergman's career (and the largest, at that point, for any of his films that couldn't be disingenuously marketed as sexploitation).

The film's story is pared down to the bone. Agnes (Harriett Anderson) is dying - you'll often see it claimed that she's dying of cancer (even uterine cancer, specifically), but the film doesn't tell us. It just tells us that she's dying, and she has been dying for some time, and it seems likely that it will be over soon. For that reason, her sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), have come to visit her at the family's old mansion, where she has been living alone but for the presence of her stalwart maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), who has devoted herself entirely to Agnes since the tragic death of her own daughter. Almost exactly midway through the 91-minute film, Agnes dies. This strips away what little reason Karin and Maria had to pretend that they like each other at all, or that either of them liked Agnes, or that either of them really even acknowledge that Anna is a person. The sisters' awful husbands, Fredrik (Georg Årlin) and Joakim (Henning Moritzen), come for the funeral. Anna reads Agnes's diary and lingers over a passage where the dead woman recalled what would turn out to be one of the final moments of real connection and happiness, and so the last images of the movie are, against all odds, summery, golden-lit shots of pastoral calm, providing a kind of happy-ish mood as the film ends, in the way that one can gently roll around a fond memory in one's brain to offer a moment's peace in the midst of dire misery.

This lean scenario returns Bergman to his experiments with Strindbergian chamber drama in the first half of the 1960s - focusing specifically on four people over a fairly compact span of chronology, it most particularly recalls Through a Glass Darkly - but it's more abstract and formalist than they were. While delving deep into the psychology of the main characters is part of what Cries and Whispers is about, particularly in its lengthy flashbacks for Maria and Karin, in watching it I never feel that any of these four women are fully fleshed-out personalities per se. The film is much more invested in the conflicts between them, and it would be pretentious as all hell but not therefore inaccurate, I think, to suggest that the film builds itself around the "themes" presented by the characters in the fashion of a musical composition. Comparing his films to symphonic works was nothing new for the director, and Cries and Whispers is one of several films that he suggested would be more profitably thought of in terms of musical, rather than narrative construction, but I do think this is perhaps the film where it is easiest to spot how that works. The film has an extremely rigid structure: the opening sequence sketches out the relationships between the characters and sets the mood. A little bit before the film's one-third mark, it ends with a fade to red (we'll get to the color red eventually; one can hardly talk about this film in a sensible way without doing so), which fades back to a stiff, uncomfortable straight-on close-up of Maria's face, which then fades to red again, which then fades into a flashback of Maria's memories, narrated by Bergman himself.  The flashback ends with the same exchange of fades that it started. Then comes a middle part, roughly the same length, which includes Agnes's death. This third of the film ends with the same arrangement of fades and close-ups and flashbacks, this time centered on Karin. And then the film's last third focuses on the aftermath of the death, including a variant on the two flashbacks: fades to red that bring us into Anna's mind, but here we see a fantasy, or perhaps nightmare sequence, rather than a flashback of presumably "real" events.

Three segments, with two transitions between them, and the final third combines the transitional elements into the main body of the segment; each transition built around a different woman; it's not really pushing the point more than it can bear to suggest that Cries and Whispers is built around a motif performed by three different "instruments" (Maria, Karin, Anna), each time changing the melody with the shift in how the woman carrying it relates to the main theme, Agnes. Whatever the hell we want to call this, classical, well-built narrative structure it ain't; the film's rhythms are extremely, almost inexplicably bizarre, not least because Agnes's death has been worked into the film for other reasons that narrative logic (even if she died at the two-thirds mark, that would make some kind of traditional narrative sense. But midway through?).

Maybe we want to call this musical structure, maybe we don't. The effect of it, in any case, is the feeling that the film is setting up a large-scale system of contrasts between the three central women, and this is true not just in how they relate to Anna, but in everything from how they are blocked to how they are performed to how they are dressed and made up. The first time we see Maria, she has her hair down around her shoulder in lanky clumps, as she wears a baggy nightgown; when we first see Karin, in the same scene, she has a nightgown with some kind of severe, starchy high neck that accentuates her tight bun. And to say that the remainder of their interactions are between the kind of woman whose hair is all tangled and sweaty, and the kind of woman who keeps her hair in a bun is, while reductive, not really in the least bit inaccurate.

This does mean that all the actors are playing concepts as much as characters, though sometimes they are playing concepts by situating them in the details of the character. There are many, many great moments of acting, all of them built around unblinking, unyielding close-ups (this film and Bergman's next project, the miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, are to my mind the twin climaxes of the director's ongoing exploration of the limits of a close-up driven cinema, stretching back into the first half of the 1950s). These are used with the same blunt force as everything else in the film: for example when Ullmann has to slowly relax her face into a complicated mixture of annoyance, guilt, shame, anger, sneering amusement, and hurt during a long stretch when Erland Josephson (playing her ex-lover and Agnes's doctor) calmly but brutally batters her with a litany of cruel but accurate judgments about her character. It's a marathon-length moment that practically demands we think of what a hell of a performer Ullmann could be, and how much her glacially-slow softening of her character's quiet smile is telling us about the flighty selfishness of this character; it's a kind of hyper-obvious subtlety. But, in the context of this film, it works.

Because everything in Cries and Whispers feels like it hits with full power, no matter how little it is. Or how big - I promised we'd talk about the color red, and let us at last do that, and gasp in amazement and perhaps a little horror at the sheer quantity of screaming hot crimson there is in this film (which contains, I want to reiterate, fades to red). Bergman stated that the color red was, to him, the color of the human soul, and had been since an early age, and I suppose we could do something with that, but I don't imagine that most of us would make the same connection. Red is more primal than that, anyway; the color of human blood, it's as close as we have to a universal, pan-human color for danger and suffering, and even without that, it is a profoundly uncomfortable color. Bright red was the hardest of all colors to register properly on the film stock of the era, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who won an Oscar - the first in this category for a film not in the English language) had to put a great deal of effort into finding a way of capturing it with the correct consistency and stability, because there is so much of it: the film's main location the Taxinge-Näsby Castle (really just a big ol' manor home) was in bad need of rehabilitation, and so the filmmakers, under the guidance of production and costume designer Marik Vos-Lundh, slathered the sets in red: floor, ceilings, walls. Then the costumes were all snow white or charcocal grey, and the lighting streaming in from the enormous windows was white as well. It ends up being a monochromatic film, in this sense, though not the way we ordinarily think of monochrome. It is a feature-length contrast between stark white and domineering reds, a chilly and empty color fighting against a hostile and unpleasant color - the film's world is deeply uncomfortable to be in, as a result, fundamentally incompatible with humans.

The most notable exception to this is Andersson, who spends most of the movie dead or stiffly shifting around in bed, and nonetheless gives one of the greatest performances in Bergman's filmography. The make-up helps with this: she is a sickly shade of light olive that contrasts with the rest of the film, her hair running down in sweaty streaks. The shock of seeing an actor whose appearances in Bergman films so often embody a kind of casual, energetic carnality turned sallow and dessicated is, frankly, doing a lot of the work that Cries and Whispers does as a film overall. But Andersson still augments this with one of the most committed physical performances I have ever seen, wearing a look of cosmic despair in the deep walnut-brown circles of her eyes as she puts her entire body into the act of speaking and breathing. The film's first (written) words are Agnes's declaration of her great physical pain, and Andersson turns that pain into the work of a titanic, unfathomably sympathetic performance of a dying human body, with the mind locked into that body darting around like a scared bird. Her death scene (inspired by the death of Andersson's father) is easily the most powerful I have seen in a movie, capturing the ugliness of pain and confused terror that give way, in a heartbeat, to an even uglier stillness and and absence that you can almost, for a moment, mistake for peace. If, as I think is the case, cinema is a medium for generating strong emotional reactions, this is as cinematic as it gets: the most powerful ficitonal depiction of human death in the medium, carried out entirely though sound (gasping replaced by silence) and image (Andersson's agonised expression, captured in unblinking close-up.

And so we return to where we began: this is a film - this is the film - about death, and what we do with it. For Karin and Maria, it is a thing to despise as much as they despise everything else in their lives, including themselves. For the priest Isak (Anders Ek, appearing for the last time in a Bergman film, and giving his best performance in any of them), death is a thing to bargain with and fear, as when his steady eulogy turns into a calm-voiced explosion of panic as he begs the dead Agnes to pray for the rest of them wherever she is, with Ek sending a tear down his face at the exact pivot between those two moments, all captured in a long close-up that allows him to do nothing but remain locked in one place - another one of those subtle moments that hits like a bazooka. And for Anna, death is a time to find comfort: the comfort she offers Agnes in laying the dying woman's head against her naked breast - this happens twice, the second time explicitly composed as a reference to the Pietà motif in religious art; and then of the comfort Agnes offers her in that last diary entry that ends the film on its solitary moment of tranquility.

None of this is hiding; none of this needs to be teased out. Cries and Whispers is maybe the "easiest" of Bergman's major films, blunt in its symbolism, literal in its dialogue, unmistakable in its style (the only thing I don't understand is why Ullmann plays the sisters' mother in a flashback; it weirdly privileges Maria as the "important" sister, which she surely is not by any other measure). But there is nothing subtle about death, which the film does not present as an unknowable mystery but a horrible, terrifying, unavoidable fact; and maybe the greatest of all films about death would need to be as direct and aggressive as the act of dying itself. Whatever the case, Cries and Whispers is, bar none, the Bergman film that hits me the hardest, on the most devastating emotional levels, and while that may or may not be enough to make it his "best" film (I don't think it is), it is the most rarefied, essential version of what his films "do", the summary of all his art in one blast of impeccable acting, beautifully cruel images, and a feeling of insurmountable cosmic doom.