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Built into the beginning: uses of sound in Cries and Whispers

By Evelio Zavala

Still from Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 1972)

When Woody Allen was interviewed by Richard Corliss for Time shortly after Ingmar Bergman’s death in 2007, Corliss asked if Allen agreed that Bergman made “filmed plays” and was essentially “a film writer who directed his own work”. Allen, a great admirer of and credits Bergman as a direct influence on his films, pointed to Cries and Whispers as a counterargument, “where there’s almost no dialogue at all. This could only be done on film.”

I want to take that assessment and further explore Bergman’s 1972 film with Allen’s words in mind, because, while the film can be seen as Bergman’s strongest work in terms of color aesthetics, it’s also a testament to his strength as a visual storyteller. As film doesn’t solely offer the camera to tell the story, sound plays a crucial role in Cries and Whispers by examining the film’s opening.

In the beginning, minus the credits, there’s virtually no dialogue. We get shots outside of the mansion, where the story will spend all its time in, until once more at the end of the film will we venture outside. We see trees, a statue, a rocking bench, all suggesting a beautiful landscape, in part due to Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. Whether it’s the rising sun or the emerging fog, the picture looks beautiful and yet has a lingering sense of melancholy.

What we hear may not immediately alert us, but hints at what’s to come. In the beginning of the credits, we fade to red. Once the first credits emerge, we hear a ding. Not only that, but it comes after every new credit emerges. The opening credits finish, and we now get our shots outside of the mansion. But those sounds we heard earlier didn’t end. In fact, they have become more prevalent. They’re the sounds of a morning bell. A church bell, perhaps?

Time is an essential element here, but why? Soon the bell stops, and we are treated to sounds of nature. Whether it’s the natural ambience outside or some possible animals nearby, we do hear a crow cawing. This happens when we see the swing set and the mansion in the same shot. Ah, it becomes clear. Death is near, and it’s only a matter of time. After all, life and death are one in the same. The end is built into the beginning.

If what we heard first was a church bell, that might then imply we could be hearing that someone has passed away. Now the question is simply, if someone has died, who?

We then fade to red and soon hear and see clocks ticking. Numerous times. All before the clocks stop.

We see Maria, played by Liv Ullman, sleeping in her seat, not far from her sister, Agnes, played by Harriet Andersson, who is sleeping in what appears to be her bedroom. Agnes eventually wakes up, but before that she’s breathing, almost snoring. What proceeds is her waking up, but soon struggling to breathe, and the sounds she makes gives us an unsettling feeling. All this happens in a single unbroken shot for about two minutes.

Agnes gets up from her bed and heads to her clock, fixing it, and the ticking resumes. She walks over to the window and pulls the curtain up, awarding us shots of the trees now transitioning to a cold winter. Although faint, the tickling clock still looms over Agnes.

She turns to look over her sister sleeping. Agnes smiles, but soon fades and heads to her small desk. Agnes begins to write in her diary, and the words are: “It is early Monday morning, and I am in pain.” Soon enough, it’s revealed the sisters are taking turns in watching over her. As Agnes finishes this entry, she heads back to bed and nobody is none the wiser.

The maid, Anna, played by Kari Sylwan, comes in and wakes up Maria, and not too long, the last sister, Karin, played by Ingrid Thulin, comes in right behind Anna. They ask if anything happened, but Maria states nothing did and that she fell asleep.

Although I don’t see any real significance in the first words uttered in the film, what does deserve acknowledgement is that the clock has stopped ticking. Be it in the film’s universe or Bergman’s choice, we don’t see Agnes in the shot and the clock isn’t heard.

Agnes is dying of cancer, and it becomes clear that Agnes’s death is imminent. What we heard is Bergman’s way of signaling both Agnes’s death and the film’s greater theme. No matter what angle you take the film, either a dive into the female psyche, family, isolation, detachment, or gender roles, one idea is constant that ties them together: Agnes’s silence.

The world around her is dying, be it the trees or Agnes herself, and her sisters are simply awaiting the inevitable, time being heard through the numerous clocks and morning bell. Agnes is suffering (and it won’t be the last instance we will see in the film), and is almost ignored or cannot be helped. Agnes can’t even communicate her own suffering, without it being relegated to pen and paper or even words.

The opening shot of that bench is the last memory played in the film when Agnes had a fun time with her sisters and Anna, before her health completely turned for the worst. That happy moment is connected to the opening’s sense of melancholy and death. Sadly, this memory isn’t shared with Agnes’s sisters, but her maid Anna who discovers Agnes’s diary and begins to read the entries. Agnes’s last memory and thoughts won’t be heard by her sisters, but Anna, who the family sends away at the end of the film. Agnes’s pain and joys are silenced.

These ideas are communicated to us both visually and audibly, and while the visuals paint a stronger image in your head, you can’t chalk up Bergman’s immense talent as a filmmaker through just his dialogue or stories. Bergman could film stories like no one else could, and if you want to get the full experience, to hear his stories, well, you gotta listen to it. It’s built into the beginning.


About the writer

Evelio Zavala is an aspiring filmmaker, writer, editor, and playwright. An avid reader, fellow film aficionado, D&D enthusiast, and podcast junkie. He lives in Chicago with his two cats. His one regret in life is he wasn’t born rich. He is studying Media Arts at Chicago State University.

Twitter: @EvelioandZgroup

Instagram: @EvelioandZgroup

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