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Film / Cries and Whispers

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"It is early Monday morning and I am in pain."
Agnes, in her diary

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

This 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 The Sting. Distributed in America by none other than Roger Corman.



  • Act of True Love: Karin and Maria may be Agnes's 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.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Maria is a rare example that's not played for laughs. Her childish and coquettish behavior, which masks an insidious personality, is a big reason why her much more serious older sister Karin despises her.
  • 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.
  • Bloody Smile: After stabbing herself in the crotch with a broken piece of glass, Karin proceeds to reach between her legs and smear the blood over her mouth as she grins at her hated husband, who's watching in shock.
  • Bookends: 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's 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.
  • 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.
  • Dies Wide Open: Agnes dies with her eyes open, looking at the sunlight through the window. Anna closes them.
  • 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. Though it's worth noting that the final scene has Anna read one of Agnes's last diary entries, talking about how happy she was that last day they went out into the garden and how grateful she was that they still showed up to be with her at the end, almost pushing it into Bittersweet Ending territory - for Agnes if not for anyone else.
  • 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's and Karin's flashbacks were.
  • Dysfunction Junction: It's not just the sisters who are messed up. Anna is dealing with the fact that her daughter died young and she projects her maternal instincts on the dying Agnes, Maria's husband Joakim is meek and suicidal due to her adultery, Karin's husband Fredrik shows a serious lack of empathy, and the priest is deep in a crisis of faith. Even the sisters' long-dead mother is implied to be depressive.
  • Emasculated 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.)
  • 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 Death with Dignity: The priest praises Agnes for doing this. Of course, he wasn't there to watch her scream and beg for help as she died.
  • 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.
  • Fade to White: A variation: Several scenes fade to ... wait for it ... red, of course, instead of the usual black.
  • 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.
  • Forceful Kiss: The undead Agnes forces a kiss on Maria and clings to her even as Maria freaks out and tries to run away.
  • Foreshadowing: At the start, there's a moment where Maria briefly rests her hand on Karin's shoulder and the latter visibly tenses up at this action. It's an early sign that all is not well with this family.
  • Friends Are Chosen, Family Aren't: Agnes has a much more loving relationship with her maid Anna than with her distant sisters.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Karin is dour, pragmatic and intellectual, Maria is pretty, shallow and personable. They are very estranged from each other and their attempts at getting along don't work out in the long run.
  • 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's 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's, 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 suggestive 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?
    • There are some interesting parallels between Karin and Maria's interactions with each other in the second half of the movie and their interactions with their respective husbands (or paramour, in Maria's case) seen earlier. Karin's dinner scenes with Fredrik and Maria are shot identically, and Karin knocks over a glass in both scenes. David and Karin both make nasty and accusatory speeches to Maria, which in David's case ends with the two spending the night together and in Karin's case ends with the two embracing and comforting each other (and the scene fades away as they're doing this, so who knows what else they did).
    • There is also something to be said about Agnes's obsession with their mother and her forcing a kiss on Maria, who looks just like the mother.
  • Kindly Housekeeper: The servant Anna is the most empathetic to Agnes's pain and provides her with physical comfort, in contrast to the distant, aristocratic sisters.
  • Kiss Diss: Platonic (maybe) example. In the end, when Karin and Maria part ways, Maria moves to kiss Karin on the cheek, but Karin leans away, angry at Maria for being rather flippant about what Karin thinks is a restoration of their bond. At this, Maria just smirks "What a pity!" and leaves.
  • 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 dollhouse and the portrait of their mother.
  • Not So Stoic: Karin has this composed, no-nonsense aura about her throughout the first half of the movie, and notably doesn't even shed a tear when Agnes dies, unlike Maria. This goes all to hell in the second half, with Maria's requests for them to be friends resulting in Karin having a meltdown and pouring out her contradictory feelings for her youngest sister.
  • 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.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Liv Ullmann's Norwegian accent is noticeable even though her supposed sisters are Swedes.
  • 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's 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. Holy yikes.
  • 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.
    • As children, the sisters were told the story of Hansel and Gretel (there's probably some symbolism here, since Hansel and Gretel are siblings).
  • Silence Is Golden: The sisters are estranged, the maid is below their station and the atmosphere is tense as they await Agnes's inevitable death, which means not a lot of dialogue occurs. The sparseness with the dialogue makes the film stand out from most of Bergman's other work, which is famous for being very speech-driven.
  • The Snack Is More Interesting: Maria holds a conversation with David while he dines rather voraciously. Maria does most of the talking and looks at him the whole time; he doesn't. Later there's a dinner scene between Karin and Fredrik; Karin waits for him to finish eating, looking as if she's screaming inside, while Fredrik's attention is on the food.
  • Sour Outside, Sad Inside: Karin, who's rigid, unfriendly, and looks pissed off most of the time but is actually deeply unhappy with her life to the point of feeling suicidal.
  • 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's words, with Anna rocking them gently.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: The three sisters. Karin is the stoic, dutiful and responsible Wife, Maria is the manipulative and promiscuous Seductress, and Agnes is the idealistic (especially in regards to her sisters) and largely untouched-by-the-world Child. Though their dissatisfaction with their lives makes it a deconstruction.
  • Title Drop: The film ends with a title card on a (naturally) red background saying "Thus the cries and whispers fall silent."
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Karin and Maria are rather eager to wash their hands of Anna after Agnes dies and only offer her minimum compensation (a little money and a memento of Agnes) instead of helping her find another household to work in. This despite the fact that Anna loyally served Agnes for over a decade. Only Joakim thinks of doing something more for Anna, but he's quickly shut down by Fredrik, who says her future is not their responsibility.
  • 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.
  • Whispering Ghosts: Unintelligible whispers are heard at key points throughout this generally unsettling film. Namely when Maria and Karin have flashbacks to disturbing events in their lives, and also right before the dead Agnes comes back alive in what may or may not be Anna's fantasy.
  • 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.