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celluloid relapse: cries and whispers (wailing reaches a new peak)

Harking from the dark ages where Abba and Ingrid Bergman roamed free, Anglophone culture has cultivated a healthy obsession for Swedes. To be clear, these Swedes are not the underwhelming root vegetable popular with octogenarians the world over, but the people of the small, cold and sparsely populated nation sitting atop Western Europe. Our world would indeed be strange, so strange, in the absence of Ikea, various Skarsgårds and a vast repertoire of their national cinema but thankfully, the historical interest on the part of our culture in this ‘Other’ shows very little sign of abating. If remakes can be used to gauge popular interest, our fascination definitely continues – at least cinematographically.

This reverence for Swedish cinema has persevered over the past few years mainly under the terms of World Cinema’s arch nemesis, Countess von Remake. Notably, the likes of Let the Right One in (2008) and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) have been reformulated for subtitle phobic audiences and have done remarkably well, financially and critically. It would however be incorrect to claim that this fetish stems from a solely aesthetic resonance as cause, it may be argued, stems from much more sinister inspiration. Swedish film, notably of late, has a propensity to deal openly with exclusion which when measured against current international contra-capitalist sentiment fits snugly into our contemporary social climate as a foot does an appropriately sized sock. This is not a novel preoccupation for this icy nation. While our film industry busied itself with fighting Russians, Nazis or whichever ideological enemies happened to be in vogue, Ingmar Bergman had already successfully broached the topic in Cries and Whispers (1972), a film whose characters couldn’t be any more distant and excluded from one another.

Set inside an opulent country estate harbouring severe monochromatic tendencies, Cries and Whispers is the story of Agnes’ convalescence and later death. Joined by her sisters Karin (Harriet Andersson) and Maria (Liv Ullman), their presence brings her neither comfort nor utility as their sympathies rapidly funnel themselves towards their own horrid selves, leaving Agnes forgotten to all but her faithful servant, Anna (Kari Sylwan). A tale steeped in memory, each woman in turn dwells on moments crucial in the formulation of her identity and regard for the others but in spite of a procession of attractive flashbacks no resolution is ever achieved. The bonds the sisters tentatively cultivate, perish along with Agnes in the wake of the traditional Bergman verbal implosion. Exquisitely subtle, this is by no means a happy tale and the coldness of its characters, their individual realities and resolve is starkly humbling and tragic for themselves and audience alike.

Cries and Whispers makes no secret of the fact that it rests heavily on the idea of exclusion. Metaphor, shot composition, character, setting; every component part seems to lend itself in someway to the expression and reinforcement of this fixation. Instead of wasting precious words in attempts to depict  “dual tension between exteriors and interiors” or anything else similarly obvious to just about any viewer, we shall jump straight to the most obvious feminist oriented point: treatment of ze females.

Women in Cries and Whispers, as phenomena of stereotype and impotence may well almost dominate the screen, but this does not render them admirable, competent or interesting. Every female character, in her attempts to fulfill the socially proscribed roles of a) Carer, b) Salacious Beauty, c) Man-eating Power Fiend or d) Barren Death Magnet, fails to achieve any sort of success, nor does she find any method for escape. They’re snared one and all in a devious trap significantly more subtle than what Admiral Ackbar is accustomed to.

‘Cries and whispers… provides one of the most retrograde portrayals of women on the contemporary screen’, wrote academic Joan Mellen. These are harsh words indeed given the international reputation of its director, but they are nevertheless true. Throughout the narrative, other forces definitely are at play, but nothing else screams quite so loud nor so long as WOMAN, whose roars fall only on deaf ears.

In spite of all this negativity, Cries and Whispers remains one to watch.  Warnings, like that of graphic rape in L’Irréversible (2002), animal slaughter in Benny’s Video (1992) and the all-round crapness of Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) generally do not stand between the cinephile and their meal. Instead, we watch these things with augmented expectations and mental readiness. Watch it, enjoy it, critique it. The admission of a lacuna in one’s Bergman knowledge in a room of culture snobs leaves one without a leg to stand on. I happen to quite like having legs. Taking this into consideration, I am employing every possible measure to ensure that they remain firmly attached to my torso. I urge you to do the same.

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