Set in the late 1800s, this Ingmar Bergman picture follows two sisters who have returned to the family mansion to sit at the death bed of another sister. Three lifetimes’ worth of jealousy, spite and regret percolate in the red-painted rooms, with only the genuine care and affection of the family servant offered as respite.
This is essentially high-brow soap opera, with Bergman’s touches elevating the material. While the men in his films can be inscrutable, women’s faces tend to flower before his camera. Here, Liv Ullmann – as the most blithely destructive of the sisters – cuts an especially entrancing figure of Bergmanesque callousness. As it progresses, though, Cries and Whispers becomes less an exercise in melodrama than in psychological horror. The screen periodically fades to red, while frantic whispering can sometimes be heard on the soundtrack. One sequence – perhaps a dream – briefly transforms the film into a queasy ghost story. What we’re left with is confusion and emotional exhaustion – anything but narrative closure.