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Film / Cries and Whispers

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"It is early Monday morning and I am in pain."

Cries and Whispers is a 1972 film directed by Ingmar Bergman.

This typically cheerful, upbeat Bergman movie is set in a vague time frame that seems like the latter 19th century. Sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) have returned to their old family home, to stand vigil at the deathbed of a third sister, Agnes (Harriet Andersson). Maria and Karin both have husbands but the only other main character is Anna (Kari Sylwan), the family maid, who cares tenderly for pain-wracked Agnes. As Agnes suffers through a slow and painful death, her sisters go through their own emotional crises in which they confront their selfishness and inability to love.

Only the third foreign-language film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, losing to a very very different film, The Sting. Distributed in America by none other than Roger Corman.



  • Act of True Love: Karin and Maria may be Agnes' blood relatives, but only Anna loves her enough to reach out to her suddenly undead self and comfort her.
  • All There in the Manual: Bergman wrote a preface to the script that conveyed some interesting information not mentioned in the film.
    • Agnes is 37 years old. Karin is two years older. Maria is simply said to be the youngest. Anna is "around 30".
    • Karin has five children. The only time in the film where there's even the suggestion of her having children is a line from Maria to her near the end ("Give the children my love and keep well."), and given the context one might think Maria is being sarcastic.
    • In the film, Agnes remembers how she and Maria got along with their mother, but there's no information on Karin on this front. In the script, Agnes says that their mother disliked Karin the most, confirming her as The Un-Favourite.
    • Agnes and Anna practically raised Anna's daughter together.
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  • All There in the Script: The priest's name is Isak.
  • Aloof Big Sister: Karin plays the serious, cold-as-ice, distant elder sister role to the hilt. Though ironically, she turns out to be the one most starved for affection and intimacy.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Anna's habit of undressing and offering her breasts for Agnes's comfort hints that they were lovers. Agnes is the only one of the three sisters that is unmarried.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Maybe the family isn't that big but they are definitely screwed up. Maria cheats on her husband, which leads him to the brink of suicide. Karin is stuck in a loveless marriage that leads her to mutilate her genitals with shards of glass. Karin and Maria might or might not have committed incest. Maria is generally fake and insincere, as Karin spits at her in a vicious "The Reason You Suck" Speech. Anna the maid is the only one who can offer a dying Agnes comfort—and the family summarily fires her as soon as Agnes is buried.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Puzzlingly, Maria makes a big show of how she wants to be closer to Karin, only to, after she finally wins her over, scorn her before they go their separate ways at the end.
  • Book-Ends: It begins and ends with shots of the park surrounding the manor. In the former, it's foggy, bleak and empty; in the latter, it's a sunny recollection of the family taking a walk.
  • Color Motif: Red, red, red everywhere. The walls and carpets of the lavish family mansion are red. The curtains are red. The bedsheets are red. Maria's sexy lingerie is red. Maria's daughter is dressed in red. The credits roll over a red screen. The screen flashes red for scene transitions. The book that Maria reads to Agnes even has a red cover.
    Ingmar Bergman: Cries and Whispers is an exploration of the soul, and ever since childhood, I have imagined the soul to be a damp membrane in varying shades of red.
    • The film also insists in its characters wearing either exclusively white or black. In the first and last scenes, all four women are wearing white. As mentioned above, only Maria is allowed a splash of color, and then, only in her flashbacks.
    • The last scene, which is Agnes' memory, takes place in a green and ochre garden instead of inside the red manor. It's the only truly peaceful scene in the film.
  • Creator Cameo: Ingmar Bergman isn't seen, but he narrates Maria's and Karin's flashbacks.
  • Crisis of Faith: The priest who eulogizes Agnes lets his doubts about God cloud his whole speech. Eventually he tearfully begs Agnes to plead to God on behalf of all those she's leaving behind. When he finishes, he admits that Agnes had much stronger faith than him.
  • Cuckold: Maria's ineffectual husband Joakim is acutely aware that his wife is cheating on him with Dr. David. Maria enters a room to find Joakim stabbing himself in the gut. A bloody Joakim asks for help, but Maria recoils and says "no". (He recovers.)
  • Death of a Child: At some point in the backstory Anna had a daughter who died. A flashback shows the family doctor treating the child for an illness.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Agnes pretty obviously has cancer, seeing as how she's gaunt and hollow-eyed and writhing on the bed in pain. But no one ever uses the C-word.
  • Don't Look at Me!: In Karin's flashback, after the glacial dinner with her husband, Karin demands that Anna stop looking at her. Anna fails to obey, so Karin slaps her (which she's immediately sorry about).
  • Downer Ending: Agnes dies without invoking any warm feelings in her sisters, Anna's future is uncertain, and Karin and Maria are more estranged than ever. And so the cries and whispers fall silent.
  • Dream Sequence: Or Magical Realism. But late in the film, Agnes's corpse wakes up, and starts talking, begging the others to comfort her as she goes to the other side. It's introduced with Anna's Face Framed in Shadow, in the same manner that Maria and Karin's flashbacks were.
  • Ensemble Cast: Agnes, Anna, Karin and Maria are all more-or-less equally important and there's little difference in their respective amounts of screentime.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Maria's and Karin's flashbacks are introduced with shots of their faces in dim red (of course) light, half in shadow. Anna's maybe-maybe-not dream sequence is also introduced this way.
  • Flashback: Several. Agnes remembers her mother, Maria remembers her affair with Dr. David, and Karin remembers how her loveless marriage led her to mutilate herself.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Karin and Maria have some of this dynamic, with Karin being shown handling the mansion's affairs and being more reliable in caring for Agnes, while Maria sleeps around, tries to flirt with the doctor who came to see Agnes and can't handle facing her ailing sister when she's in the throes of death.
  • Friends Are Chosen, Family Aren't: Agnes has a much more loving relationship with her maid Anna than with her distant sisters.
  • Good Morning, Crono: It begins with the start of a new day and the house waking up. Even that is painful for Agnes.
  • Happy Flashback: The last scene is Anna reading Agnes diary, recounting the time all four women took a walk in the park, which Agnes considers one of the happiest moments of her life.
  • Hates Being Touched: Karin recoils from Maria's embrace, saying "I can't stand to be touched." Later however she seems to change her mind, and they caress each other intimately.
  • Hidden Disdain Reveal: Karin makes a speech to Maria in which she tells her how much she hates her.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: When Anna refuses the offer of a memento of Agnes', Fredrik disdainfully comments that she's putting on a noble front but she'll get nothing from it. He says this in German so that Anna won't understand what he's saying about her.
  • Incest Subtext: Maria touches and caresses Karin's face and at one point leans in for a kiss in a manner that is rather subjective of a sexual relationship. Later, Karin is hurt when Maria doesn't seem to want to acknowledge that.
    Karin: You touched me. Don't you remember that?
  • Lady in Red: Maria (the only one to actually wear red) dons a revealing red dress to seduce David.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After slapping Anna, Karin seems to realize what she's doing and tries to apologize. Later, more expressively, she immediately regrets her hateful speech to Maria and begs for her forgiveness, which she gets... for a while.
  • Nostalgic Musicbox: A music box-like tune is playing when Maria is wistfully contemplating her doll house and the portrait of their mother.
  • The Noun and the Noun: Cries and Whispers
  • Ominous Fog: The film opens with a shot of the grounds of the mansion enveloped in early-morning fog and mist. The dark and foreboding mood of the picture is firmly established.
  • Parental Favoritism: A young Agnes thought their mother's favorite was Maria and was resentful of that.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: After Agnes's corpse wakes up—yep—and asks for comfort, Anna gets on the bed and cradles her in a classic Pieta pose.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: A mazurka by Chopin and a cello suite by Bach are the only music pieces to be heard.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Maria is twice the target of this. The first time is by her paramour David, who makes her look at herself in the mirror and describes how her inner ugliness is showing on her face. The second time is by Karin, who hisses at her how much she hates her for being such a fake.
  • Red/Green Contrast: If the characters aren't inside the red manor, they're walking through the lush green park surrounding the manor.
  • Red Is Violent: A possible interpretation of the use of red in this film, in the psychological/emotional sense rather than the physical (though there's also some of that, thanks to Karin).
  • Replacement Goldfish: Agnes feels like she was never loved by her mother, while Anna's daughter died very young. The way Anna comforts Agnes in her illness seems maternal in nature with how she embraces and talks to her, and Agnes is happy to indulge in this.
  • Revenant Zombie: Agnes' corpse comes back alive, not to eat her sisters' brains, but to ask them to stay close to her as she goes to the other side. They are disgusted and refuse.
  • Self-Harm: So, how stable and loving is Karin's marriage to Fredrik? After they share a cold, unfriendly dinner, Karin takes a shard of glass and stabs herself in the vagina. Then she comes to bed with Fredrik, spreads her legs, and smears her face with blood, as he stares at her.
  • Setting Update: A 2011 stage version of the film transplants the story from the late 19th century to the 21st century.
  • Shout-Out: Maria reads The Pickwick Papers to Agnes.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Maria and their mother, as lampshaded by Agnes. Of course, the real reason for this is that they're both played by Liv Ullmann.
  • Suicide Is Shameful: After that scene, Karin admitting that she has suicidal thoughts to Maria comes as no surprise. However, Karin is also ashamed and disgusted by such thoughts.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: The happiest scene in the film is the last one, where Agnes, Karin and Maria sit on their swing together "like three good little sisters", in Agnes' words, with Anna rocking them gently.
  • Title Drop: The film ends with a title card on a (naturally) red background saying "Thus the cries and whispers fall silent."
  • Unwanted Spouse: Karin has no love for her husband, and the sentiment appears to be mutual judging from their dinner scene.
  • Wedding Ring Removal: After a particularly chilly dinner with her husband, Karin describes her marriage as "a web of lies" and removes her wedding ring. Then she does something very bad with a shard of glass.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: At the end, Karin expresses willingness to keep in close contact with Maria after their reconciliation earlier. But Maria reacts with aloofness and belittles Karin, who's clearly hurt by this, resulting in Karin's seeming development into being more open with her sister receding as she closes herself off again.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Maria once had an affair with Dr. David. She tries to seduce him again but he spurns her.

Example of: