Cries and Whispers (1972)

It’s not just Liv Ullman’s heaving cleavage, and it’s not exactly and insult as much as a personal connection, unclassified and in need of exploration, but Cries and Whispers always makes me think of 1970’s issues of Playboy magazine. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ingmar Bergman, but there is something about this film, one of his most well known and well respected films, that reminds me of the glossy defused images of that gentleman’s magazine, not so much the pictures of naked women as much as the images of the Playboy lifestyle. There is just something about that period in time, the filmstock they used, and the image of sophistication seems synonymous with the 70’s.

Made in 1972 Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers tells the story of two sisters (Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin) who watch over their dying sibling (Harriet Andersson). While on vigil each sister recalls her rather disappointing life, full of unsatisfactory marriages and self-inflicted heart ache. Ingmar Bergman uses vivid cinematography, well composed images, spare, but tense dialogue, and an overly serious tone to create a classic work of foreign cinema punctuated by harrowing flashbacks and haunting dreams.

When I think of a classic foreign film, Cries and Whispers is the first to come to mind. Perhaps this title springs forth because it was one of the first foreign films I ever saw, but even seeing it today there is something distinctly European/Foreign about the film. The brilliant, but limited color palette reduces the film to thee simple colors – those blood red walls, those black and white costumes. The significance of each detail, of every gesture, every line, every breathe of silence punctured by the ticking of a clock demands that it be taken seriously. Cries and Whispers stands as a heart wrenching piece of art attempting to squeeze its way into a medium more known for lighthearted entertainment. Taking cues from painting and theatre, this somber chamber pieces seeks to legitimize film as a classic art form.

Yet, there is whiff of pretentiousness that makes Cries and Whispers teeter towards inflated self-importance. The film never goes so far as to fall completely into a realm con artistry, but Bergman’s full-tilt effort to validate film as art nearly removes it from the touching heartache that is so central to his story. To his credit he errors in the proper direction, lathering his film with overindulged style and emotional gravity that nearly crushes the fragile work at hand. Yet, there are moments when I want to decry everything in the film as being bogus. Just as I cannot look at advertisements in 70’s and even 80’s Playboy magazines without feeling that each advertisement projects a false image of enlightened elegance. Hi-fi systems, well lit glasses of Scotch, a neatly tailored pair of slacks, and the latest model sports car they all mix with interviews, articles, and reviews that help the reader exhibit an air of refined class, yet it ultimately feels quite translucent and tacky. Yet, I would not be surprised if a lot of 1970’s Playboy readers took their dates to see Cries and Whispers – if not to show off their sophistication than to at least ogle Liv Ullman.

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