There’s enough copy out there about how Ingmar Bergman drenched his feature, Cries and Whispers in red (röd). He chose red (especially after the majority of his earlier work was monochrome) for its striking visuals, color theory, and connection to Swedish history. If nothing else, in Sweden a specific red, Falu Rödfärg, colors a significant number of buildings, especially in the countryside. Red, across cultures, symbolizes passion, lust, desire, etc. It’s also the least visible of the color spectrum, so I’ll offer that Bergman chose to oversaturate the film with it to stand it out. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about this movie.
That’s really all there is to say about the color red and Cries and Whispers. There’s lots of scholarship about it. That’s enough.
The not-so-secret fact about the Oscars is their Americanness: of the 566 films to ever have been nominated, 12 have been filmed in a language other than English. This isn’t surprising–the Academy voters are mostly native English speakers, American audiences overwhelmingly see movies performed in English, and despite the premise that the Oscar winner should best represent the gestalt of the year, what we really mean is the zeitgeist of American culture. The road to global reach is unpaved, likely, but we’d like to think that language is the one phenomenon we can overcome; there are subtitles.
But alas, Cries and Whispers was the last Swedish movie to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (but not first! “The Emigrants” was nominated just a year earlier. The Emigrants, however wasn’t wholly Swedish, either. It’s a Swedish-rooted story about America).
Swedish, as a language, is sort of bonkers to decipher, and nagging to the native English speaker because of its Germanic roots and bouncy gait. Its structure, like any language spoken by millions of people, follows a pattern, and there’s more than a few cognates. But there’s still great distance between Swedish and English, and it’s an effective barrier between the two cultures. Cries and Whispers is incredibly Swedish, incredibly Bergman, but also full of universal tones ahead of their time: the quiet tragedy of women.
The Swedish word for woman is kvinna (the emphasis is on the second syllable, kvee-NUH). It’s a strong word with strong roots–it comes from the Old Norse kvæna–which meant “wife” or “to take a wife.” If we’re to believe in the cultural austerity of words, that language overcomes massive, glacial shifts in population dynamics then the history and roots of kvinna from Old Norse to Swedish is vital to the characters Bergman builds in Cries and Whispers. The plot is a study of four women at varying levels of tragedy, some married (uh, unhappily to say the least), and some dying, but it’s a story about women and their husbands, first, not the other way around. Kvinnor indeed.
Cries and Whispers is about saying the quiet part, soft. Ultimately, the film’s restraint (the whispers) leads to intense internal conflicts, one after another at our kvinnors childhood home. They all remember the low hum of latent tragedy and it seems that existence is painful for these people. But is it self-harm? Do they exist in pain, amplified by each others’ presence? Does each sister–Agnes, Karin, Maria–have to recall past trauma because of the external circumstance, like being in a house?
Is this indicative of the human condition? Perhaps not, but tragedy is unjust, and it’s often applied liberally to those who don’t deserve it. What does a child do, for instance, to just exist without cruelty? Bergman is a master of his craft–obviously–but his greatest trick in Cries and Whispers is convincing the audience that the tragedies befallen our systrar and their trailing paramours were necessary but undeserved. It’s a neat trick and the actors play it with aplomb.
I’m not sure an American director could elicit the same sort of restraint and have it feel meaningful; after all The Sting won Best Picture in 1973. Cries and Whispers will always be squarely Swedish, but for the American audience, a peak under the hood every now and then can only make the Oscars more meaningful. It was an open year though, sandwiched between the two Godfathers, and largely forgotten. The other three pictures: American Graffiti, The Exorcist and A Touch of Class all could have taken the award home, and ultimately it’s The Exorcist that should have won in 1973. I guess the monster we know beats the monsters we don’t.