Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is in the final stages of what appears to have been a long battle with cancer. Sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) are staying with her, awkwardly attempting to comfort and console Agnes during her last days. It becomes quite clear that the trio is significantly estranged and distant from one another. The live-in caretaker Anna (Kari Sylwan) has a special connection with Agnes and has profoundly calming effect on her even during her most painful episodes. Though younger than Agnes, Anna assumes a maternal presence when around her. Neither Maria nor Karin seems to understand why Anna has bonded so closely with their sister, but they’re nonetheless willing to rely on her.
The sequences involving Agnes suffering the devastating symptoms of her illness are nearly unbearable to witness. Andersson’s performance is so incisive, so convincing, it’s easy to forget she’s an actress playing a role. Her pain and suffering register as the real thing. The narrative drive is found in flashbacks that examine why Maria and Karin are so miserable in their lives. Maria’s extramarital affair led to shocking consequences. Karin, meanwhile, became mired in self-harming (depicted in gruesome detail, perhaps more disturbing than watching Agnes’ agony) while trapped in a loveless marriage.
For those reading this who’ve not seen Cries and Whispers and are still with me after that recap, definitely seek out the film. It’s unpleasant in the extreme, but stands as a monumental work of cinematic art. Bergman puts the relationships of these three sisters under a microscope and allows us to draw our own conclusions. You may find yourself relating to Karin or Maria, but you just as easily may find yourself repulsed or confused by their emotional dysfunction. Whatever the case, it’s an emotional experience worth investing one’s time in and just may inspire viewers to re-evaluate their own relationships with loved ones.
The two-disc set includes a good deal of supplemental material. An introduction by Ingmar Bergman and filmmaker Marie Nyrerod, taped in 2003, is found on disc one. Everything else is on the second disc. The 1999 documentary program “Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson” (53 minutes) is divided into 13 chapters. This is a great piece, not specific to Cries and Whispers but featuring a lengthy discussion between Bergman and Josephson (who appears in a supporting role in Cries). There’s 34 minutes of “On-set Footage,” with commentary by film historian Peter Cowie. There’s also a 2012 interview with Cries star Harriet Andersson. Brand new to this edition is “On Solace,” a 13-minute video essay by independent filmmaker :: kogonada. The booklet contains an essay by University of Cambridge professor Emma Wilson.