Cries and Whispers


In light of the month-long centennial retrospective of Ingmar Bergman’s films at Film Forum, I am excited to share a piece I wrote as an undergraduate on Cries and Whispers as seen through a prism of Feminist Literary Theory.


The Theme of “Woman” in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers

    Feminist Literary Criticism is an integral part of feminism and can be applied to any aspect of art involving women. 

The feminist literary theories mainly aim at understanding the position of women and gender conflict. The primary works of the literary theorists are to evaluate how the gender quotient is effecting all phases of human existence. Unlike the feminist movement the feminist literary theory not only wants to change the social stratum but aspires to invent new substitute models of reading and writing and trying to determine the reasons behind the condition of women in the contemporary world (Eagleton.) 

Contemporary art that explores past worlds seems far more interesting than simply contemporary issues involving women. Feminism is a political term and it is because of this that it is not especially useful when referring to art because art is something which stands apart from political propaganda. The films of Ingmar Bergman are some of the most remarkable that anyone has ever experienced, after all, they are an experience, and they aren’t political in any way. 

Politics meant little to Ingmar Bergman in his films, so he was not interested in feminism. Instead, he was concerned with the psyche and spirit of women; women abandoned by God, or trapped in lifeless marriages; women whose squelched desires often erupted as bitter confessions. In nearly all his films, there is a moment when a woman unloads everything: each regret or petty annoyance is voiced, half-truths and lies are admitted to and betrayal and hate are laid face-up on the table. These ritual purgings are always difficult to watch, but refreshing. He allowed his women to cleanse their souls, before disease or boredom swallowed them up (Thompson 1.)

Since politics were of little importance to Bergman, he found “self-enlightenment” in his exploration of femininity; this is what François Truffaut called “the feminine principal.” Ingmar Bergman said that women were “the world I have developed in, perhaps not for the best, but no man can really feel he knows himself if he manages to detach himself from it” (Thompson 1.)

This literal act of writing for and role-playing with women erupted into color in 1972 with one of Bergman’s masterpieces, Cries and Whispers. In a film critique by Rustin Thompson written in 1997 he says that Cries and Whispers is a film that Bergman composed of 

sequences that began and ended with close-ups of women staring into the camera, mute introductions to flashbacks that told the story of three sisters and their servant. The servant cares for the cancer-stricken oldest sister by exposing her heavy, maternal breasts, and letting the dying woman nuzzle there. It is a scene of marvelous sensuality, a tribute to the life-sustaining power of a woman’s body (Thompson 1.) 

While this is a very beautiful description of the film it is sparse in parts, especially when having to do with Bergman’s theme of “woman.” The servant, Anna, (who was played by Kari Sylwan) cared for Agnes, played by Harriet Andersson, out of pure feminine love and not out of duty or obligation. Anna’s character lost her only child, a daughter, when she was only three years old due to the neglect of the callous doctor played by Erland Josephson. Ever since she has cared for Agnes because of their common bond which is unique female suffering: Agnes was never married and never bore children. She is also dying from cancer of the womb. Her uterine problems are more than symbolic for the film. Although she is suffering, emaciated and pale, her belly is swollen as if she is in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Needless to say, Agnes dies in the film. In the words of Ingmar Bergman as he was writing in his workbook for Cries and Whispers:

I believe that the film- or whatever it is- consists of this poem: a human being dies but, as in a nightmare, gets stuck halfway through and pleads for tenderness, mercy, deliverance, something. Two other human beings are there, and their actions, their thoughts are in relation to the dead, not-dead, dead. The third person saves her by gently rocking, so she can find peace, by going with her part of the way. (Bergmanorama: the magic works of Ingmar Bergman.)

    This scene takes place after the character of Agnes has literally and biologically died. In the words of Ingrid Thulin as Karin, “she has already begun to rot. She has foul spots on her hands.” Agnes cannot let go and remain as dead, though, because she does not want to be left alone surrounded by emptiness “until the horror is over.” Karin is the eldest sister who refuses to stay with Agnes; she refuses to be involved with her death. Maria (played by Liv Ullmann), is the youngest sister: the naïve, flirtatious, promiscuous one of the three.  She becomes utterly terrified at her dead sister’s behest and runs away. This is when Anna says that she will take care of Agnes, so by doing this, she bares only one breast and cradles the body of Agnes against hers in the death bed. She was not able to deliver a child that lived so she has been willed to deliver a woman whom she loves to eternity. By going “half way,” as Bergman calls it, Agnes is able to find peace and cease to exist within her death. 

    The film Cries and Whispers was the first of Bergman’s works that could not be thought of as in terms of black and white. Bergman said that, “in the screenplay” he “thought of the color red as the interior of the soul.” He goes on to say: “When I was a child, I saw the soul as a shadowy dragon, blue as smoke, hovering like an enormous winged creature, half bird, half fish. But inside the dragon everything was red.” When wondering about the color of the soul and why it is red I immediately think of the sanguinary aesthetic which is to be bloody. Blood is the life force and the most brilliant red bodily fluid to be seen, that is when its contact with oxygen occurs. Inside all of us we are red, just like Bergman’s imaginary dragon. 

    The feminine soul can also be thought of in uterine terms: Bergman even said that this image of the soul he kept conjuring was “a damp membrane in varying shades of red.” A membrane makes me think of an organ, especially a covered organ which houses life: otherwise known, for this purpose, as the uterus. Watching Cries and Whispers makes one feel as if they are, indeed, in utero because of the claustrophobic, red surroundings. The walls of every room within the film are painted red; “the set design is a decaying mansion suggestive of a cocoon walled by red velvet and red brocade” (Mellen 5.) The draperies, tapestries and wine are red and the mise en scène is steeped and dominated by this stylistic choice. Since this film is drenched in the color of crimson; even the flashbacks fade accordingly. It’s as if the memories of the four women are bleeding from within them. This can be analogous to the flowing of menstrual blood from the womb during a woman’s menses after conception has not taken place. This purging of blood protein is symbolic of a release and recognition of the feminine soul. 

    When Bergman said that the character of Agnes may be pleading for deliverance after death, he may have been referring to “deliverance” as literal in terms of women. Female bodies are designed to engage in the act of childbirth. The uterus, which for Agnes is diseased and the cause of her death, did not engage in deliverance of a child so she is left to seek out another form of purgation. Instead, she remains innocent like a child clad in white while being held at the bosom in an almost Christ-like way. In God, Death, Art & Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Lauder examines the symbol of the Pietà and Bergman’s use of it to “convey the love between Agnes and Anna.” Anna is filmed “holding Agnes the way Mary is depicted holding Jesus in the Pietà” (Lauder 75.) 

    Ingmar Bergman also described his vision of the soul once, in The New Yorker, as being a “moist membrane.” It has been said by film scholar, Joan Mellen, that in “Cries and Whispers, this color of blood stands more for the body of women. An image of her biology, like a ‘moist membrane,’ it defines her however she struggles to elude its grasp” (Mellen 6.) One of the four stages of Feminist Literary Theory is “a term coined by Elaine Showalter that refers to the development of a uniquely female aesthetic.” This term is “gynocriticism.” Cries and Whispers most certainly uses a uniquely female aesthetic, especially during its mise en scène involving Ingrid Thulin as the tormented, eldest sister, Karin and a splinter of a broken wine glass. 

    Simone de Beauvoir’s primal theme in her work The Second Sex is that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Well, metaphorically speaking, maybe. Biologically, this is obviously not true. Bergman’s character of Karin “despises her sexuality.” In fact, “she is tortured by her sexuality and hates being a woman” (Mellen 6.) She is trapped in a loveless marriage in which she despises her husband: he “is repulsive to her physically and mentally,” writes Bergman. She obviously despises sexual intercourse because she hates her husband and her body yet she has five children “(whom, significantly, we never see, not even in Karin’s own flashback)” (Mellen 6.)

    This sets the main premise behind the mise en scène in which the symbol of blood and the female body ties together beautifully. Karin and her lifeless husband are having dinner consisting of some sort of fish and red wine. Karin inquires whether her husband wants coffee or whether he would prefer to retire early; he doesn’t want any coffee. Suddenly the glass filled with the red wine shatters, startling Karin and ruining the pristine white table cloth. Karin delicately picks up a shard of the glass, and while examining it, says to herself “It’s but a tissue of lies, all of it” before retiring to her boudoir to undress. She lays the shard of glass upon a mirrored tray on her dressing table and begins to take off her rings. Anna is standing by to help Karin with her undressing and then redressing for bed ritual. Karin snaps “Don’t look at me” and then slaps Anna in the face. She says sorry and asks for forgiveness but Anna only timidly shakes her head as to say “no.” 

    After the jewelry (including earrings and a long strand of pearls) is removed, the hair comes down out of its restrictive, Victorian bun. Karin steps out of her high-collared black dress and her myriad of under dressing to reveal a beautiful, thin nude body that is still fleshy and very womanly. She then steps into a white long-sleeved singlet and dressing gown in which she will sleep in; this scene reveals the importance and the limitations of Victorian clothing thus making undressing an actual “ritual.” Karin then tells Anna that she may leave. Thulin (as Karin) begins to finger the shard of glass that is still lying on her dressing table waiting to be used as some sort of revenge-seeking weapon. She then repeats the following phrase that “could stand for the disillusionment of all of Bergman’s characters” (Mellen 9.) “A monumental tissue of lies. Tissue of lies.” 

    The woman who has revealed that she feels as if she is living a falsity carries the splinter of glass over to a more comfortable chair where she can relax. It is now that the viewer notices just how sharp the shard is; it has multiple keen points and is, in a way, spear like, maybe even phallic. Karin proceeds to lift her gown, open her legs, and inserts the shard of glass into her vagina. She moans in agony and then, with a gasping sigh, seems relieved. She seems to smile and ostentatiously licks her lips. She gets up from her chair and retreats into the bedroom she shares with her husband; she lies in bed and reveals herself to her husband by lifting her gown and opening her legs that are rendered considerably bloody. There is blood everywhere: between her legs, on her hands and eventually on her face when she smears it across her mouth as if possessed. She will stop at nothing to shock, appall and claim revenge against the husband whom she loathes. But, that’s not all; she proceeds to lick the blood away from her mouth. As she does this she looks satisfied, thrilled, tortured and surreal all at the same time. I think it’s sufficient to say that the scene is intense, shocking, frightening and maybe even difficult to endure.

    One female critic named Verina Glaessner wrote for Time Out magazine that during “the short sequence where Thulin, in period costume, is undressed by her maid, says all there is to say about clothes, disguise, repression. Cries is about bodies, female bodies, in extremity of pain, isolation or neglect.” The critic then seems to take a feminist stance by using a term that was reclaimed by strong women as being positive in connotation, the word being “cunt.” Glaessner states that “Karin (Thulin) mutilates her cunt with a piece of broken glass and, stretched out on her marital bed, smiles through the blood she’s smeared across her mouth at her husband in a celebration of a marriage that’s ‘a tissue of lies.’” 

    This scene, in itself, is a celebration as well. It is a celebration of free will, rebellion, ownership of one’s body and the ability to endure self-inflicted pain that is probably far less painful than that which she hasn’t intentionally inflicted and that she carries in her soul. The term “cunt”, though, refers, according to feminist writer Joanna Frueh, to the vulva as well as the vagina. It is implied that Karin inserts the shard into her vagina since we do not actually see it take place. It is clear that she does not “mutilate” her vulva; instead, what she does deals with the internal. This sort of revenge can be thought of as sexual since the shard is phallic-like and inserted into her vagina. It is masturbatory in a very sado-masochistic, dangerous way. It is also pro-woman because she does this of her own free will to try and feel something without the help of a man. She is in complete control of her body and she uses it to bring about something astounding, profound and frightening. She is attacking her hatred of sexuality by addressing the subject with her husband in an unconventional way. She doesn’t need permission to do what she wants with her body, be it pleasurable or not. 

    Joanna Frueh also wrote in her Vagina Monologues-esque piece Vaginal Aesthetics of the beauty of the vagina, its secretions which make it appear “shiny” and moist, as well as its tastes and color. She compared it to a rose, (hopefully a red rose). After all, vaginas are varying shades of red, membranous and obviously unique to women. Stephen Heath writes in The Sexual Fix which is an integral part of Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader of “a femaleness” which consists of “flow, liquid, lips and holes” (Heath 221.) This mentioning of lips including the ones on a woman’s face as well as the two pairs below her waist that are the labia majora and the labia minora is quite significant in Bergman’s mise en scene for Cries and Whispers. Ingrid Thulin focuses her anguish on her vagina but also on the lips of her mouth which she licks repeatedly in a calm yet neurotic manner. 

    It has also been said that the scene discussed comes “indubitably as a humiliation” (Mellen 9.) This judgment may sound negative but, on the contrary, it is exactly what Ingmar Bergman sought out to do with his films. He found the basic, primal act of humiliation as very revealing to a character, be it man or woman. Simone de Beauvoir once said that she thought “man” was defined as a human being while a woman was strictly “female” and that “whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” This may be a feminist view and it may be true in many cases, except with Ingmar Bergman. Bergman’s female characters were much stronger than the men; his men were, according to Truffaut, “conventions.” “It is rare to see a film these days with such respect for women, which depicts their sex and their bodies with such honesty” (Thompson 2.) Bergman created a fantasy family of, in the case of Cries and Whispers, sisters. They are characters who are capable “of hate as deep as love” (Thompson 2.) 

    The women are also fearless when it comes to speaking of enduring pain and suffering; no one shudders when Karin says that she has often thought of killing herself. It is simply matter of fact. The ability for such beautiful characters that are so uniquely female to endure such inner turmoil and suffering is remarkable. After all, Bergman “found a path to clarity through illness” and I think his characters do as well. (Thompson 2.) Francois Truffaut also said that Bergman’s women were “not seen through a masculine prism in his films, but are observed in a spirit of total complicity.” Cries and Whispers is a film that is startling, haunting and incredibly moving. It is a feminist piece because it deals solely on the notion that women are involved in the world and responsible for their own actions. The women also do not depend on the men in their lives to help them with their problems; actually the men seem to be completely incapable of caring for a woman. 

    Finally, the last scene in the film is a flashback of quite beauty. Anna reads an excerpt from Agnes’s diary that was written before her illness when she was completely happy. The memory creates a scene in the film which involves all four women wearing white, carrying parasols and completely content to be in this “virginal” world without men. Agnes says “the people I’m most fond of in the world were with me. I could hear them chatting round me; I felt the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I closed my eyes tightly, trying to cling to the moment and thinking, come what may, this is happiness” (Mellen 11.) Cries and Whispers is, according to some, one of the closest semblances of a dream ever caught on film; it is a special use of incredible actresses cradled by a master craftsman who was charmed by women until the day he died. Cries and Whispers is a feminist piece because it reveals the inner workings of women, their strength and their raw beauty. Even while dying, Harriet Andersson’s character is still beautiful because she is a woman and, therefore, enchanting. All women were enchanting to Ingmar Bergman, and this makes him a feminist. Cries and Whispers is especially feminist because it is all about women: anything so beautiful that is all about women must be feminist and Cries and Whispers is one of the most beautiful works of cinema that a person can, hopefully, be lucky enough to experience.


Annotated Bibliography

This text is a translated version of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography from Swedish to English. He discusses, in depth, his art as well as speaking the “language of art.” He wrote of his influences, most notably his mother and grandmother, as well as his wives, lovers and children. He discusses his films, which is most important for my paper.

Bergman, Ingmar. An Autobiography: The Magic Lantern. Middlesex, England: Viking angelaleePenguin Inc., 1988.

This text is ‘chock’ full of candid, intimate interviews with the legendary artist/director. He discusses his films in great depth, including his artistic intention as well as his reasoning for casting his actors/actresses. 

Björkman Stig, Manns Torsten, & Simas Jonas. Bergman on Bergman: Interviews angelalewith Ingmar Bergman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

    This text deals mainly with Bergman’s vision as a writer/director and artist. It deals with his intention as well as what he wishes for his audience to reap from his films. (Of course he is now deceased.) This book includes a prologue written by his lover and muse, Liv Ullmann. 


This article is a feminist piece that discusses the aesthetic of female sex organs as viewed by the media. It also juxtaposes the actuality of the vagina as opposed to its “symbolism” and the artistic approach.

Freuh, Joanna. “Vaginal Aesthetics.” Hypatia, Vol. 18, No.4, Women, Art, and angelaleeAesthetics (Autumn-Winter, 2003.) Indiana University Press. P. 137-158

Gado, Frank. The Passion of Ingmar Bergman. Durham: Duke University Press. 1986.

Lauder, Robert E. God, Death, Art & Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar angelaleeBergman. New York: Paulist Press, 1989.

    This text deals with Ingmar’s vision and the rituals with which he went through to create his art and direct his films. 

Livingston, Paisley. Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art. Ithaca: Cornell University angelaleePress, 1982.

    This is an article that deals mainly with Ingmar Bergman’s use of women in his films. It discusses, in depth, his use of women in his film “Cries and Whispers.” It prompts the notion of feminism, sexuality, love, marriage, etc. It describes the entire film in great detail, which is wonderful.

Mellen Joan, Bergman and Women: “Cries and Whispers.” Film Quarterly Vol. 27, No. angelalee1. Autumn, 1973. Pages 2-11. University of California Press. 

    This is the text for Literary Criticism 461. I will be discussing the cited articles below.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. New angelaleeYork: Queens College of the City University of New York, 2007. Kolodny, angelaleeAnnette. Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, angelaleePractice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism., 1980.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. New angelaleeYork: Queens College of the City University of New York, 2007. Sedgwick, angelaleeEve Kosofsky. Gender Studies and Queer Theory., 1986. 

This is a text that discusses the technicality of Ingmar Bergman: his directing style. This also discusses his reasoning behind color, certain scenes, close-ups, etc within his films. It discusses symbolism on the screen.

Simon, John. Ingmar Bergman Directs. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,          

Inc, 1972. 

    This is Liv Ullmann’s autobiography. She made ten films with Ingmar Bergman; she also directed a film for which he wrote the screenplay: “Faithless.” Ullmann was Bergman’s lover and muse. She is also the mother to one of his children, a daughter called Linn. She writes a lot about the films she made with Bergman and how life imitated art and vise-versa.

Ullmann, Liv. Changing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976.  

Thompson, Rustin. “Bergman’s Women.” Moviemaker magazine. 30 angelaleeJune 1997. Web 19 November 2009.

    This text discusses the ethos and ideas behind the films of Ingmar Bergman. It also discusses his Swedish sensibility and influences. 

Young, Vernon. Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos. New York:      angelaleeAvon Books, 1971.