Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1202

Bergman is not a playful dreamer, as we already know from nightmarish films like The Silence, which seems to take place in a trance. He apparently thinks in images and links them together to make a film. Sometimes we may feel that we intuit the eroticism or the fears that lie behind the overwhelming moments in a Bergman movie, but he makes no effort to clarify. In a considerable portion of his work, the imagery derives its power from unconscious or not fully understood associations; that's why, when he is asked to explain a scene, he may reply, "It's just my poetry." Bergman doesn't always find ways to integrate this intense poetry with his themes. Even when he attempts to solve the problem by using the theme of a mental breakdown or a spiritual or artistic crisis, his intensity of feeling may explode the story elements, leaving the audience moved but bewildered. (p. 89)

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Like Bergman, his countryman Strindberg lacked a sovereign sense of reality, and he experimented with a technique that would allow him to abandon the forms that he, too, kept exploding. In his author's note to the Expressionist A Dream Play …, Strindberg wrote:

The author has sought to reproduce the disconnected but apparently logical form of a dream. Anything can happen; everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist; on a slight groundwork of reality, imagination spins and weaves new patterns made up of memories, experiences, unfettered fancies, absurdities, and improvisations.

The characters are split, double, and multiply; they evaporate, crystallize, scatter, and converge. But a single consciousness holds sway over them all—that of the dreamer. For him there are no secrets, no incongruities, no scruples, and no law.

That is Bergman's method here. Cries and Whispers has oracular power, and many people feel that when something grips them strongly it must be realistic; they may not want to recognize that being led into a dreamworld can move them so much. But I think it's the stylized-dream-play atmosphere of Cries and Whispers that has made it possible for Bergman to achieve such strength. The detached imaginary world of the manor house becomes a heightened form of reality—more literal and solid, closer than the actual world. The film is emotionally saturated in female flesh—flesh as temptation and mystery….

In the opening shots, the house is located in a series of autumnal landscapes of a formal park with twisted, writhing trees, and the entire film has a supernal quality. The incomparable cinematographer Sven Nykvist achieves the look of the paintings of the Norwegian Edvard Munch, as if the neurotic and the unconscious had become real enough to be photographed. But, unhappily, the freedom of the dream has sent Bergman back to Expressionism, which he had a heavy fling with in several of his very early films and in The Naked Night, some twenty years ago, and he returns to imagery drawn from the fin de siècle, when passion and decadence were one. (p. 90)

[The] four women of Cries and Whispers are used as obsessive male visions of women. They are women as the Other, women as the mysterious, sensual goddesses of male fantasy. Each sister represents a different aspect of woman, as in Munch's "The Dance of Life," in which a man dances with a woman in red (passion) while a woman in white (innocence) and a woman in black (corruption, death) look on. Bergman divides woman into three and dresses the three sisters for their schematic roles: Harriet Andersson's Agnes is the pure-white sister with innocent thoughts; Liv Ullmann's Maria, with her red-gold hair, wears soft, alluring colors and scarlet-woman dresses with tantalizing plunging necklines; and Ingred Thulin's death-seeking Karin is in dark colors or black. The film itself is predominantly in black and white and red—red draperies, red wine, red carpets and walls, and frequently dissolves into a blank red screen, just as Munch frequently returned to red for his backgrounds, or even to cover a house (as in his famous "Red Virginia Creeper"). The young actress who plays Agnes as a child resembles Munch's wasted, sick young girls, and the film draws upon the positioning and look of Munch's figures, especially in Munch's sickroom scenes and in his studies of the laying out of a corpse. Cries and Whispers seems to be part of the art from the age of syphilis, when the erotic was charged with peril—when pleasure was represented by an enticing woman who turned into a grinning figure of death….

The movie is built out of a series of emotionally charged images that express psychic impulses, and Bergman handles them with the fluidity of a master. Yet these images are not discoveries, as they were for Munch, but a vocabulary of shock and panic to draw upon. Munch convinces us that he has captured the inner stress; Bergman doesn't quite convince, though we're impressed and we're held by the smoothness of the dreamy progression of events. The film moves with such eerie slow grace that it almost smothers its own faults and absurdities. I had the divided awareness that almost nothing in it quite works and, at the same time, that the fleshiness of those big bodies up there and the pull of the dream were strong and, in a sense, did make everything work…. (p. 91)

[Bergman's] greatest single feat as a movie craftsman is that he can prepare an atmosphere that leads us to accept episodes brimming with hysteria in almost any makeshift context. Here, as Strindberg formulated, the dream context itself makes everything probable; the dreamer leads, the viewer follows. In Cries and Whispers Bergman is a wizard at building up a scene to a memorable image and then quickly dissolving into the red that acts as a fixative. The movie is structured as a series of red-outs. We know as we see these images disintegrate before our eyes that we will be taking them home with us. But Bergman doesn't have Strindberg's deviltry and dash; he uses a dreamlike atmosphere but not the language of dreams. (pp. 92-3)

Death dreams that come equipped with ticking clocks and uncanny silences and the racked wheezes of the dying are not really very classy, and Bergman's earnest use of gothic effects seems particularly questionable now, arriving just after Buñuel, in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, has turned them on and off, switching to the spooky nocturnal as a movie joke. But even when Bergman employs sophisticated versions of primitive gothic-horror devices, he is so serious that his dream play is cued to be some sort of morality play as well. Other chaotic artists (Lorca, for example, in his dream play If Five Years Pass) haven't been respected in the same way as Bergman, because their temperaments weren't moralistic. But Bergman has a winning combination here: moral+gothic=medieval. And when medieval devices are used in the atmosphere of bourgeois decadence, adults may become as vulnerable as superstitious children. (p. 93)

Pauline Kael, "Flesh" (originally published in The New Yorker, January 6, 1973), in her Reeling (copyright © 1973 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 89-94.

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