Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Bergman's whisper

I saw Ingmar Bergman's masterful and wrenching film Cries and Whispers (1972) first in the mid-seventies during my college years at SUNY/Buffalo, and again in 1995 as part of the (NYC) Lincoln Center/Walter Reade Theater comprehensive Bergman restrospective. It's curious what I hold in memory. I have retained a rudimentary sense of the story, that a dying woman in a large house is tended to by her sisters--and that she does die. I recall, as perhaps everyone does who has seen the film, the shocking sequence wherein one of the sisters breaks a glass at the dinner table, takes a shard away with her, intimately mutiliates herself offscreen, and presents herself to her husband. But what is most probably unusual is that I retain the opening minutes of the film, an extended sequence of the ticking and the individual visual features and especially the swinging pendulums of the many old-style clocks that populate the house. And also the final, or is it close to final, image of the movie, three women on a long swing seat, something like a sofa, rocking forward and backward.

I am ashamed that I did not remember that the film has a "striking color palette made almost exclusively from shades of red, black and white", as Marco Lanzagorta reports in his essay on the film, which can be found at www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/03/25/cries_and_whispers. I wish I had remembered more of the story, as Lanzagorta refreshes my memory of it, including the fact that the dying woman (Agnes) is "young" and "virginal" ; that she is cared for by her "faithful and reliable" maid (Anna) as well as by two sisters (Maria and Karin); that both Maria and Karin have unhappy marriages (Karin breaks the glass); and that a Chaplain delivers an "unusual prayer" that "confesses his own lack of faith".

But the sound and sight of the ticking clocks was so vivid I could never forget them (I mean, of course, that I cannot forget being struck by the sequence, and I retain vague whisps of the ocular and aural experience). And I recall my elation at seeing the three women on the swing seat at the end (and something of what this looked like). For the women were in tune with each other, quietly joyful in the moment's association, and so their rocking is a vibrancy that acts against the losses Time brings, imaged in the film's first moments--the swinging of the pendulums.

I do not even remember if the three women at the end are the maid Anna and the two sisters, brought very close by their season of care-taking; or else all three sisters, including the now-dead Agnes, in a flashback relating a quietly perfect moment.

But I thought someone might like the main thing I noticed.

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