It’s 1973 month at the Film Experience, so for this week’s edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has assigned us that year’s winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar: the Swedish chamber drama Cries and Whispers, a massively powerful film that’s also just about the most depressing thing in the career of director Ingmar Bergman. Who might well be the most depressing major filmmaker in history, so “the most depressing Bergman film” isn’t a tiny claim to make, but it well suits a drama whose plot contains the following beats:
1) A woman is dying;
2) She’s visited by her sisters who hate her and each other;
3) She dies;
4) Things get worse.
It’s the last thing anybody would turn to because they wanted a breezy time at the movies, but it’s rich, potent psychology executed by four world-class actors guided by one of the finest directors of women in cinema history: Harriet Andersson as the dying woman, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann as her cruel sisters, and Kari Sylwan as the maid who alone brings any measure of warmth and comfort to the film’s stark world. Between them, and the great Sven Nykvist, whose greatest work of cinematography this represents, Cries and Whispers becomes, to my mind, the single best film in Bergman’s canon, merciless but profound, bleak but beautiful.
The film is notable for its harsh, monochromatic palette, all brown and black and violent fields of blood red, bringing anger and destructive passion to the sickly world of the film. And oh, how I felt like I should focus on one of the images that best exemplified how the film uses red, for there’s not another film of the 1970s where color is so specifically and deliberately applied. But along the way, I came up with a little joke for myself: “I should find the happiest shot in the movie, tee-hee”, thought I, because this is very much a film where you don’t just find happy moments. You have to mine for them.
And yet, there is a moment in the film that meets the exact fake criterion I came up with for myself. There’s not a trace of red to be seen, and the emphasis of the moment is on connection and love, not on isolated terror and spiritual deadness. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the rest of the film, and while I ordinarily like to pick shots that exemplify the movie that contains them, it felt like the contrast this image offered is exactly what made it a wonderful choice.
That’s Anna the maid, coming to the dying Agnes in one of her moments of agony to provide comfort and warmth, offering her naked breast as a pillow for the sick woman to rest on, to feel warmth and flesh and safety. There are both homoerotic and maternal overtones to the gesture, both of which are equally valid and important in a film that is otherwise specifically devoid of either kind of love (the only other meaningfully sexual scene in 91 minutes finds Thulin’s Karin mutilating her genitals with a broken wineglass to keep her husband at bay). But it’s the maternal element that I’d rather focus on, not least because the composition, with Anna arched over the dying woman, cradling her, recalls to my mind the Pietà, the classic motif of Mary holding the dead body of Christ. This is not the only time that Agnes is associated with Christ, either, though it’s typical of Bergman’s “God is silent” period that Agnes-Christ does not end up proving a transcendent, redemptive figure.
But the main import of the moment is that it is the one place of real tenderness and love in the movie: the kindly, comforting kiss on the forehead, the way that Agnes has placed her hand on Anna’s other breast, as though to reassure herself that this other person providing warming shelter is really there. Even though her skin is damp and sallow, her face is calm and peaceful, more than anywhere else prior to her death.
By virtue of being the only protracted kind moment in the film, this lands with a great deal of force that it might not have if the film was more evenly split between hope and despair. As it is, this is one of the most striking examples of love that I have seen in a movie; much more powerful for how dramatically it stands out from the surrounding misery, much more hopeful because of how desperately the universe of Cries and Whispers needs even the smallest measure of hope.