Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
Bergman defines his principal theme as a concern with the "wholeness inside every human being." This "wholeness" is the basis upon which relationships with other human beings are formed. The fragmenting of wholeness within the self is inextricably bound up with the fragmenting of interpersonal relationships…. Cries and Whispers mirrors this desire to heal fragmentation between the self and others, and between separated elements in the individual psyche. (pp. 147-48)
Agnes's character is perhaps "incomplete" by literary standards, but here, we know as much about Agnes as is necessary to our understanding of the film's totality—she is dying, and she is, in an important thematic sense, a child.
She is also, in another sense, an artist who works in painting and literature, but primarily in the latter, through her "diary." Agnes is a type recognizable from Bergman's earlier films, the alienated artist, in this case separated from the other characters by her artistic sensitivity and the immediacy of her mortality. It is her feeling of alienation that impels Agnes to write. Her writing, like all artistic endeavor, is the dying child's protest against physical death and the psychological death of infancy, as well as a contradictory effort to accept death and dissolve the confining walls of the isolating ego.
This contradiction arises from the essentially split nature of the psyche. The conscious mind strives for differentiated existence, for physical and psychological survival. But all living entities, including the human psyche, possess a contrary impulse toward unity, ultimately toward dissolution. Eros and Thanatos do not describe this opposition accurately. The death wish, the sexual drive, and the need to feel and express love are aspects of the unifying impulse, the desire to return to undifferentiated, thoroughly integrated being. Agnes and Anna express this unification impulse most strongly in Cries and Whispers. Maria and Karin represent varying intensities of the "adult" impulse to differentiation, which, taken too far, results in the frigid isolation and guilt of Karin.
But every adult has been long banished from the bliss of undifferentiated being. Near the beginning of the film, we learn that Anna's child is dead. The shot of the empty crib fades to a close-up of Agnes holding a white rose and beginning to reminisce about her childhood. In the helpless suffering of her death pangs, Agnes will become, momentarily and redemptively, Anna's child, as the parallelism in the opening sequence clearly foreshadows. The death of Anna's first child deepens the meaning of the death of Agnes, her second child, suggesting the universal death of childhood, a psychological rather than a literal dying. The film presents human beings as crying, dying children, exiled from the perfect contentment of unconsciousness. (pp. 148-49)
[The] image of Agnes on Anna's breast recurs in the film in spite of Agnes's literal death. Bergman implies that the relationship of Agnes and Anna cannot die, and that although God, as a subjectively traumatic concern is dead, the redemptive moments of wholeness remain. As an archetype of the wholeness of integrated being, God remains very much alive in Cries and Whispers. Nevertheless, since wholeness is an uncommon and fleeting treasure, Agnes and Anna represent primarily a symbolic ideal, which is only rarely experienced in reality.
The alienation of adult experience and the impediments to redemptive communication are sequentially mirrored in the Maria and Karin flashbacks. Before her flashback begins, Maria is seen in the room she had as a child, surrounded by her dolls. For Maria, other people are usually no more than dolls, subjectively arranged in her life as narcissistic tributaries. Because of her narcissism, which is a...
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negative infantile trait, Maria does not appear strongly to require the feeling of completion supplied by another human being. Rather than the creative, curious childishness of Agnes, Maria's childishness is that of the self-sufficientid, an amoral, continual pursuit of pleasure, finding fulfillment primarily in physical gratification. Maria's consciousness is only rudimentarily developed. (p. 151)
While Maria's alienation results from a infantile regression and is essentially a fearful retreat from life, Karin's isolation is the product of her iron-willed repressive pride. And just as Maria's weak husband does not provide the proper counterpoise to her own weakness, Karin's husband is so much like herself that their existence is a perpetual battle for emotional dominance. (p. 152)
In Cries and Whispers, several motives for Karin's masochistic act are implied: she is symbolically scourging her sexuality as an act of repression, but, also, as an act of expiation, she is able to express her sexuality only in this masochistic manner. The display to her husband and the triumphant smearing of the blood on her face suggest again the desperate desire to reach someone else and to have her unconscious identity confirmed in the mind of another. Since social convention, guilt, and mutual projective hatred have made it impossible to reach her husband through normal communicative means, this shockingly hostile action expresses both her rage and an attempt to expose her suffering unconsciousness, perhaps to liberate and revive the dying child in herself. (p. 153)
Cries and Whispers is another effort to create a bridge between the alienated self and the other. It is an attempt to create wholeness out of the fragmentations of Ingmar Bergman's previous works and out of the inherent fragmentations of the human psyche. Although the film must end, and the members of the audience, like Karin and Maria, must return to the alienation of their separate lives, something of the shared experience of the film will remain in their minds, helping to overcome the absolute isolation that would exist without this art.
The artist has sought his audience, just as Maria has pursued the Doctor, and as Agnes had called out for Anna. But when the Doctor tried to understand Maria, he could only scrutinize her face in a mirror, seeing in her only what he saw in himself. This despairing view implies that communication is impossible and that fragmentation can never be overcome. In the affair of the Doctor and Maria nothing has been felt and nothing has been communicated. Maria, the Doctor says self-revealingly, sneers too much. But Anna and Agnes do love each other, which implies that the dead "child" in the adult self can be comforted, although it can never really die, and will usually feel alone and isolated. In addition to her identity as the universal crying child in the psyche, Agnes represents art, as an impulse to achieve individuation or psychological completion. The final passage from her diary suggests that wholeness and communication are indeed possible, if only for fleetingly redemptive moments. (p. 157)
Julian C. Rice, "'Cries and Whispers': The Complete Bergman," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1975 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. XVI, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 147-58.