The main reason why you need to catch Bergman’s fifty year old but beautifully restored (by the BFI) melodrama Cries and Whispers is to experience the genius of its Oscar winning cinematography by Sven Nykvist on the big screen.
This is a dark, shrill, hysterical and occasionally harrowing film about death, marriage, failure, the bond between sisters and madness. All very typical of its director.
The central performances by Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin and Harriet Andersson are thrilling to watch – very theatrical but at the same time subtle and powerful and the film’s gradual descent into something resembling the Gothic is all brilliantly controlled by Bergman (who also features as one of the film’s narrators). The sound design by Owe Svensson makes superb use of silence and (unsurprisingly) half-heard voices; the costumes and hair-stylings are gorgeous and Marik Vos’ art direction is impeccable.
But it’s the colour red you’ll take away with you, and those magnificent close ups and that absolutely brilliant framing – all down to genius cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who died in 2006, leaving his mark on over 120 movies (including several key films by Bergman, most notably Persona; but also many by Woody Allen, who worshipped all-things Bergman in his heyday and several odd choices – Fleischer’s gangster drama The Last Run in 1972; Pakula’s 1979 romance Starting Over with Burt Reynolds; Bob Rafelson’s lurid 1981 Postman Always Rings Twice re-make and Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, in 1993 for example).
The more you watch and study film as an art form – the more you begin to appreciate the work of the collaborators (and Nykvist is one of the truly great collaborators) and thus the richer your enjoyment of the medium becomes. I cannot think of any reason why anyone in their right mind would decide to sit down at home and decide for themselves to watch something like Cries and Whispers. It’s a tough, agonising watch, almost totally devoid of humour and, indeed, human warmth. It’s a brittle, shrill and hysterical film – and contains moments of supreme horror.
But on the big screen its genius is glaringly apparent (especially when you think that it’s now fifty years old). This is a film which forces you to stare at the unimaginable; to find beauty in the bleakness and to marvel at the wonder of cinema and all its possibilities.
And, you know what? In another 50 years’ time it will look even more magnificent.
See Cries and Whispers at The Ultimate Picture Palace on Sunday 10th (15:30), Monday 11th (18:15) and Wednesday 13th April (20:45). Book tickets here: https://uppcinema.com/show/cries-and-whispers/
This blog was written by Dr Andrew C Webber, a film teacher for over 30 years currently teaching film and media at Stowe school. He is also a Film Studies examiner and regularly contributes to the Cinema of the 70s magazine – available from Amazon.