Ingmar Bergman's films are primarily entropic: they unfold with such precision and bleakness that, when you watch his monochromatic fare, you can't help but wonder if they started out in color and somehow the narrative absorbed the pigment. Which is odd, because few writer-directors have such a humanist streak as the Swedish genius. He likes to lose God and find Him again, though usually what we get doesn't fit the standard description of a deity. His characters like to mask their pain, but at some point their emotions flood to the surface.
Cries and Whispers, one of the director's color films, is at once everything you'd expect from one of his films and something wholly outside his comfort zone. It centers on characters who have grown distant, petty and vacant and can only reach epiphany through a terrible catharsis. It proceeds at a deliberate pace with stark photography. But it also burns with all the passion he normally denies his other films, to the point that Bergman fades to red, not black.
The film takes place, even, almost entirely in a room painted red. There, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) lies on her deathbed, ravaged by cancer. She's tended to by her two sisters, Kårin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullman), and her servant Anna (Kari Sylwan). She awakens one morning before her carers and writes in her diary: "It is Monday morning, and I am in pain." She pauses, then underlines the last word.
Naturally, Agnes' story is only the setup for a character study, not the actual focus of the film. We see how the sisters used to love each other dearly but have since drifted into ennui and aloofness. Kårin and Maria are married to husbands they don't love, and Maria (the pettiest of them all) engages in affairs to spite her husband's own philandering. Agnes never married, and used to while away the time by painting mediocre watercolors. We see their pasts in flashbacks that show happier times as well as some events that drove them to their detachment in later years.
Perhaps in an effort to recapture their youth, they all wear virgin white. It's a nice ironic touch, but there's also a bit of tragedy to it: Kårin and Maria spend their mornings preening and styling hair while Anna tends to Agnes. They doll themselves up to the point that they do actually resemble dolls: beautiful, but cold and inhuman. The house is established at the start with static shots of the outside of the manor, filmed with beautiful coldness by Bergman's right-hand man Sven Nykvist. The detached effect is even more jarring as they walk around in their giant dollhouse, which feels unwelcoming despite the passion literally painted on the walls. When an outsider like the doctor, who is also Maria's lover (Erland Jospehson)
Anna wears white too, but it seems to fit her. Bergman tells us her story as well though only in pockets of emotional, not character, advancement. She kneels in front of an empty cradle-cum-shrine and prays, revealing that she lost her son but still has faith. Clearly, that loss fuels her care of Agnes, as she cleans, dresses, even reads to her without treating them like perfunctory chores like the sisters.
Agnes' illness slowly brings the humanity out of these characters, though they don't know what to do with it. In one scene, Maria tries to appeal to Kårin, wondering why they can't have the bond they used to have. But when they even attempt an embrace, they shy from each other's touch like skittish animals. Kårin in particular looks like she's about to have a heart attack. The most iconic moment of the film is of course Anna holding Agnes to her breast: while the sisters idle with their visiting husbands, she lets down her dress and uses her breast as a pillow. It's a blatant example of Anna projecting her maternal frustrations on this dying woman, and it gives them both just a glimmer of satisfaction.
At last, Agnes dies. Her final gasps of agonized breathing are without question the most unsettling thing I've ever heard in a film. It's the kind of noise that almost makes you want to leave the room because it's so inhuman and so real. It certainly has that effect on the characters, who turn and cower except for loyal Anna. In that moment, a look crosses Andersson's face that conveys total contentment, and you know that Agnes has accepted her death. After some time, Agnes begins speaking to the women, beckoning them to come to her body and ease her into the afterlife. Kårin flees the room immediately, unwilling and unable to deal with the situation. Maria looks equally terrified, but resolves to stay. Until the body grabs her in an embrace and she too splits. Anna, the only one not blood-related, volunteers to stay before Agnes can even ask, and once again brings her charge to her bosom.
Early in the film, Maria's lover reminisces with her, mentioning that she "used to look ahead straightfowardly... open, unmasked" but now makes only calculating sideways glances. At the end, as she prepares to leave with her husband, she cannot bring herself to thank the now-jobless Anna, and she only pauses to give her material recompense. She seems like the same person, but when she hands the money to the servant, a look of gratitude and care flashes on her face.
Cries and Whispers is one of the greatest triumphs from one of the greatest directors who ever lived. It's easy to think that these characters don't go anywhere, but that's only because Bergman doesn't feel the need to make them strikingly different at the end. At one point in the film, Kårin, locked in a passive-aggressive spiral with her equally-unfeeling husband, cuts herself with broken glass simply to feel. As she toys with the glass, she repeats "It's all a tissue of lies" over and over. But in the final moments, we cut to a flashback from an excerpt from Agnes' diary, in which she describes a day she spent not long ago with her three companions out on the lawn. As they sit in a swing, the voiceover tells us what Agnes thought: "Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection." Even if for only a moment, the tissue broke, and these people knew what is was like to feel again.