As the dominant element of the film’s cinematography, mise-en-scène, and editing structure, the brilliant use of red in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) evokes the complexities of various aspects of its tragic and implosive characters’ femininity, creating a fluid symbolism that viscerally combines motherhood, sensuality, innocence, and blood.
Cries and Whispers depicts the psychologically confrontational and infrequently compassionate relationships between four women in turn-of-the-century Sweden: Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who is slowly dying from cancer; her ethically and emotionally unsavory sisters, Marie (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin); and Anna’s humble and affectionate maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). As Agnes’ conditions worsens, eventually resulting in her excruciating death near the middle of the film, Marie and Karin engage in acidic arguments – about their withering sister, each other’s selfish motives, and their moral shortcomings – that end with half-hearted phony resolutions to become closer and more sensitive to one another. Throughout the claustrophobic psychodrama, which takes place almost entirely within the confines of the family’s 19th century mansion, Anna serves as a passive observer, selflessly dedicating herself to Agnes and complacently receiving Marie and Karin’s condescension – becoming Agnes’ replacement mother in a film otherwise bereft of empathy and love.
Richly photographed by longtime Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who would win the Best Cinematography Oscar for the film in 1973), the lush ruby colors of Cries and Whispers’ stunning sets and costumes are made overwhelming and shockingly vibrant – illustrating the importance of the film’s carefully crafted mise-en-scène when one is attempting to discern the film’s meaning and tone. Ravishing red hues can be found throughout the film, most noticeably in the interior design of the family’s mansion, which features bold scarlet walls and carpets, deep puce chairs and cushions, and crimson drapes, curtains, and bedding. The omnipresence of cardinal coloration pervades nearly every frame of Cries and Whispers.
Bergman explained his choice to emphasize red in the film by claiming that the film is “an exploration of the soul” and that he “imagined the soul to be a damp membrane in varying shades of red,” but the significance of the carmine colors extends past this generalized perspective once one realizes that Cries and Whispers is not about just anyone’s soul, but about the souls of four women – Agnes, Marie, Karin and Anna.
Throughout the film, men play a minimal role, popping up only to provide caustic critiques of Marie and Karin, as is the case with Marie’s occasional lover, David (Erland Josephson); Marie’s semi-suicidal husband, Joakim (Henning Moritzen); and Karin’s heartless and emotionally abusive husband, Fredrik (George Årlin). Barring its few moments of gender diversity, Cries and Whispers is solely about the interplay between its quartet of women – sisters, wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, and rivals. In this miasma of femininity, Bergman’s enveloping reds come to suggest the motherly womb, the blood ties of family, the loss of virginity and innocence, and the stark rawness of passion (be it in love or hate).
Impressive sanguine tints haunt the women as they sleep in the blushed house (womb) of their mother; as they watch their sister writhe in pain under maroon blankets; as they spew vitriolic words at one another in front of sparse vermilion walls; as they reminisce about their long-dead mother reading her red-covered copy of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1837); as Marie attempts to seduce David in her skimpy cerise lingerie; as Marie tends to her daughter, clad in a ruby dress; as Anna tenderly cradles Agnes’ corpse in a manner that echoes Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498-99) during a shot that is swallowed by an encroaching red fade; and as Karin slices her vagina with broken glass in a fit of melancholy desperation, eventually smearing the symbolically-menstrual blood onto her lips in one of the most disturbing scenes ever filmed.
Bergman’s women cannot escape the control that the swirling reds have over them, as the colors define most of the myriad aspects of their femininity. The editing of Cries and Whispers reinforces this, often fading into scenes from a red screen and allowing scenes to fade out through a collapse into bright rouge – including a series of intermittent straight-on close-ups of the women’s faces that inflame and burn out in rosy shades, populating the film with lyrical meditations on the links between the psyches (or souls) of Agnes, Marie, Karin, Anna. Nykvist’s mind-bogglingly pungent garnet-hued cinematography delves into the visually-represented core of womanhood that holds Cries and Whispers together. The women are encased in the red – locked within the reality of their femininity, which Bergman reveals to be both a gift and a burden in his fiercely challenging cinematic masterpiece.
by Brandon Colvin
***This article originally appeared in Rise Over Run Magazine.