Joan Mellen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1282

Bergman employs [women] as spokeswomen to express his personal world-view—a world-view basically defined by the traumatic absence and silence of God, who has coldly abandoned us all to a cruel world. His women characters sometimes serve Bergman to express his agony over our ultimate inability to derive meaning from life except in rare moments of sensual ecstasy, soon contaminated by disgust over the bodily processes in which all experience is rooted. Yet if women occasionally are Bergman's vehicle for locating meaning, it is much more frequently male characters who pursue the ethical issues in his films which are not peculiar to either sex.

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What is striking about Bergman's treatment of women is thus not the philosophical role they are called upon to play in his films. It is, rather, his treatment of their characters. Bergman offers a much different explanation for the inability of his female, as opposed to his male, characters to find purpose in a universe without direction…. Bergman is far harder on his woman than on his men. They are depicted as if on a lower notch of the evolutionary scale. Although the philosophical quest for an authentic mode of existence can hardly be limited by female as opposed to male hormones, Bergman insists that because of their physiology, women are trapped in dry and empty lives within which they wither as the lines begin to appear on their faces.

If the Knight in The Seventh Seal fails to achieve a sentient life because the cold abstractions by which he moves lock him into an ethical opacity, Ester in The Silence lives an empty, futile life because she has not accepted the demands of the female body, because she refuses the female sexual role. (p. 2)

Bergman presents us with a double standard. His men move in an ethical realm, his women in a biological one. It is true that his films reveal that these men are frequently found wanting. They contribute little solace or transcendence to a world whose people have lost the capacity to care for each other. But the cause of their moral demise does not rest especially in their male physiology. Bergman's men are distorted human beings, but their intrinsic physical characters and the nature of their flesh are not presented as standing in the way of their redemption….

Bergman's women, on the other hand, are too often creatures whose torment resides in the obligation to submit to the repulsive sexual act. If Bergman's men lack power because there is no ethical imperative rooted outside the individual to which he can respond, his women (like Anna in The Silence or Karin in The Touch) are powerless before the sway of their lusts. (p. 3)

[One] should not make the mistake of assuming that Bergman endorses this vision of woman as weak, pallid, and locked into her physiology. Yet Bergman's point of view is arbitrary…. Absent from Bergman is any sense of how women can surmount and have transcended the norms of the ascetic and rigid late-19th-century philosophical milieu with which he has burdened himself. Far from understanding and showing compassion for the plight of women, Bergman creates female characters who are given the choice only—as in Cries and Whsipers—to be a Karin (cold and frigid), or a Maria (mindless and promiscuous), with the secondary alternatives of being an Agnes (inexplicably nonheterosexual and insatiably in Angst) or an Anna (servile and bovine). And Bergman implies through the closed microcosm of human existence he presents that these will forever be our alternatives. (pp. 3-4)

Bergman's intellectual women are vastly less attractive than his spiritually questing men. One is ineluctably brought to the conclusion that for Bergman it is not woman's role to quest after meaning. When she does, it is forced, unnatural, and with far less grace, finesse, or hope than with men….

Cries and Whispers presents four women ensnared for the time period covered by the film into obsessive relationships with each other, excluding except in flashback men, children, and parents. It presents an unmistakable culmination of Bergman's sense of how women are inexorably and particularly limited by the physical shells in which their souls have been encased by that absent, unintelligible, godhead who has left us so alone without communication, solace, or release. (p. 5)

All these women suffer deeply. The hurt of all is symbolized by the agony of Agnes, in her torment and struggle. Her lips are bitten, her skin sallow, her hair lank, her teeth yellow, her nostrils distended with pain. She is woman stripped of allure, bared to the repellent essentials of a body in decay.

The women are dressed in white, expressing their unconscious wish to return to the virginal and to exclude men entirely from their lives. All the men in the film—the pompous, self-satisfied doctor, the sardonic, sadistic husband of Karin, and the weak, pallid, plump husband of Maria—are pathetic figures, less physically vibrant than the women. Woman is thus defined at once by being physical and unsatisfiable, a judgment validated by the inadequacy of the men Bergman chooses as their husbands and lovers. (p. 7)

The hatred of women for men is unabated throughout the course of this film. It is as irrevocable and inevitable as life, as the blood red fades to the "normal," pointing to woman's special shame. (p. 8)

Cries and Whispers is broken in half by the reiteration of [the theme of God's silence], which remains as integral to Bergman's work as his sense of the absence of free will afforded by the universe to human beings. It is expressed in his depiction of women as "classical" examples of beings limited by the shape God has given them and powerless to do anything but act in reaction to repellent biological drives….

The last third of the film reveals Bergman's belief that women are not necessarily capable of greater gentleness and feeling than men. It denies that they alone have retained the power to "touch" each other….

Karin's horrid and fought-off emotions are the most deeply felt and are presented as the most authentically derived from experience. At last Karin yields to Maria's embraces only to discover her own awakened needs and feelings unreciprocated at the end of the film. It is only when Karin is physically and sexually aroused by Maria that she responds to her caresses. This summons in her only the return of anxiety, disgust, and self-hatred. Feeling for Bergman, between women as between men and women, has its origin in lust, although rejecting such love as unclean brings only loneliness. (p. 9)

There is a bitter disparity in Cries and Whispers between the richness of color, the purity of the white against red, and the absolute degradation visited upon these women, who have been deprived of every saving grace, even the mythical "gentleness" that is said to belong to females but be denied the male. Women are in reality far from being Bergman's "favorite people," as one feminist critic supposed. Bergman exposes himself once again as one of those film-makers most hostile to a vision of women as free, creative, autonomous, self-sufficient, productive, satisfied, or, indeed, gentle. His women, rather, are chained to bodies which leave them little freedom or opportunity to transcend the juices, demonic drives, and subordination peculiar to their gender. Paradoxically, their bodies even deprive them of that sensitivity frequently attributed to women. Cries and Whispers, in fact, provides one of the most retrograde portrayals of women on the contemporary screen. (p. 11)

Joan Mellen, "Bergman and Women: 'Cries and Whispers'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1973 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Fall, 1973, pp. 2-11.

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