Cries and Whispers

1972 film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullmann.

This masterpiece has a strength and depth that I do not often see in films. Full of powerful female roles – the sisters, daughter, above all the maid – it is above all a series of single and slow shots, often with great attention to shadows and fog, foreground and background, which are the most arresting.

The three sisters gather in the family mansion because one is at the end of her life. Depicting her terrible suffering and their various responses to it, Cries and Whispers is concerned with all the important things in life: dying and death (of course, sadness and grieving and what happens afterwards), love, religion, sex, lack of human communication and connection. And betrayal, raising the questions whether we all do these sorts of things to each other, especially in our important relationships, and when we do, is it through a lack of awareness, a lack of kindness, self-interest…?

The style is all about the implied – snatches of conversations hinting at abuse in the past; subtle facial expressions; a view through the window into the garden at the right moment – nothing is thrust at me or over-explained, rather I am allowed to sit back in my cinema chair and draw my own conclusions, using my own intelligence and powers of observation, respected.

It is a measured Galliard (i) of a film, one meaningful step at a time, allowing me to see the detail and depth of a face or scene and almost always leaving certainty aside. After she dies and then calls her sisters, is she meant to be a ghost? When one refuses to attend the sick room, is this because she cannot bear the suffering, or is there a relationship issue we are not aware of? The pace allows some space to reflect while watching. I could not have slept for a second, although one man managed to snore throughout!

The cast is made up of women suffering and damaged in themselves, the most powerful being the maid – voluptous, clever, loving, agreeable, she has many of the attributes we expect from ‘the staff’ in these historical movies, but is a much rounder character than that. The exquisite tenderness in the removal of her top and cradling of the dying woman is something I will not forget quickly.

Meanwhile, the men take a back-seat, although they are implicated by what they do not say, what amuses them. At the edges of the main drama, their words or actions highlight the dysfunctional family situation – for example, as in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, it is the man who generously suggests a payment is made (here, to the maid after the death of her mistress) and his wife who refuses.

I am reminded of a more recent American film as I watch. To The Wonder (ii. 2013, directed by Terence Malick) must surely be paying homage to Cries and Whispers with its plaintive domestic scenes, lack of extant dialogue and slow self-conscious choreography on wide open plains.

What has stayed with me? The most explicit scene in which she accidentally knocks over a delicately decorated glass at the supper table. There is a suggestion that she expects her husband opposite to chastise her, but there is silence. She toys with a shard of glass and later takes it with her when she goes into her room where she desperately stabs it between her legs. Somehow she manages to walk into their shared room, lie back on the pillows and smear the blood over her face. Does her husband enjoy the result of her wound? Is the blood part of their love-making? She smiles and he moves to join her with no sign of horror on his face. The next morning she is moving around, apparently with no pain. Chilling.

Afterwards, I feel sad even morose, quiet and contemplative.

I watched this, on the spur of the moment, at one Vintage Sunday showing at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, May 2018.

i. A Galliard is an Elizabethan dance style.

ii. To The Wonder


Never Steady, Never Still

2017 Film directed by Kathleen Hepburn. 5 stars.

A stunning film in both definitions of the word, Kathleen Hepburn’s best known film is also painfully realistic. Very gradually, we come to understand how desperately challenging Judy’s life is. Shirley Henderson brilliantly inhabits the body of someone with Parkinson’s – the gait, the gestures, the voice – and evinces incredible pathos as a result. Her 18 year old son, Jamie (played by Théodore Pellerin) is the other key character in this Canadian feature, and he, too, is deeply immersed in his role so that we squirm when he is embarrassed and cry when he cries. It is no wonder Hepburn has won a whole raft of accolades for this.

Gently, the extent this illness has on Judy’s life unfolds. Set against the exquisite, quiet backdrop of the water and hills, icy forests and snowy roads of Alberta, the physical pain and mental challenge is terrible. The setting or rising sun, rose-glowing at the horizon, may be indicative of the atmosphere in the home, but it is never overly obvious. This is because we are slowing down with the pace of the film and increasingly mindful, unable to avoid empathising with what is taking place.

As if Judy and Jamie do not have enough to contend with, they must also deal with death and consequent grieving (there are marvellous views of the simple funeral chapel); bullying around heavy machinery; drug taking; an unpleasant sex scene with a prostitute in a tiny portacabin toilet; teenage pregnancy and the inevitable questions about sexual orientation – although I thoroughly enjoyed the candid, awkward conversations between Jamie and 17 year old Kaly (Mary Galloway) in the final section.

The opening scene of the mother in her white nightie standing thigh-high in the sea outside her lodge, and the accompanying narrative of her miscarriage and stillbirth, manages to be both light in tone and heavy in implication. Again and again, we see the cast from behind, although we might be shown, over a shoulder, a second character facing us. Often intense close up is used, so close that it can be almost out of focus, such as the upsetting, but fantastically realised, getting-dressed sequence at the end; or the camera is at ground level, for example, when Jamie and his best buddy play ice hockey: the sound and sight of the blades cutting, chillingly, through the ice.

With so many beautiful and artful images to stay with you after it ends, there is nevertheless a sense of discomfort and danger. Despite the occasional easy humour, you cannot avoid understanding something about life with this debilitating disease.


2017 Film, directed by Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ new film, ‘Wonderstruck’ is set simultaneously in 1927 and 1977. There are two stories about two children, Rose and Ben, searching for family, running away from home and, in the case of Rose, kneeling touchingly at the water’s edge and sending her note of despair away on an origami boat (for more paper folding, see later). Of course their stories coincide at the end – albeit with charming storytelling and impressive acting from Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley .

Shot in black and white for the 20s, and technicolour for the 70s, the combination of these styles with appropriate costume and largely relevant music, make for no confusion about which part of the narrative we are following, and establish a clear ambience. In addition, as it shifts back and forth from era to era, we learn about the kids’ home life, hobbies and relationships, and begin to guess what the connections between them might be.

The poignant scenes of the misunderstood and vulnerable young ones roaming busy streets, of old cinema and theatre, antique book store, and museums galore (which unfortunately are reminiscent of Night at the Museum with some identical shots), are all arresting but somehow predictable; beautiful and yet obvious.

Both characters are deaf and much is made of this – Rose in her silence, with a stern father shouting, is secretly longing for her film-star mama (most authentic silent film until you recognise Julianne Moore!). Her narrative mimics little Ben’s, newly bereaved after his own mother dies in a car accident, and who is then struck by lightening no less.

The score is variously pop and classical, interspersed with quiet. There is an astronomical theme hence several renditions of 2001, A Space Odyssey (Also Sprach Zarathusra), and quite a bit of David Bowie with the final credits running out on ‘Can you hear?’

Repeated use of newspaper cuttings; scribbled messages on feint-lined pads; sign language; lip-reading for the audience; gesture and mime – with even a very brief appearance by a Marcel Marceau street performer – are enlisted to get the message across. The final denouement is enticingly told with animation and collage alongside a magnificent paper landscape of New York.

There is very little left to the imagination, countless clues are easily spotted by the keen-eyed (how many left-handed women can you see?), but Wonderstruck has lush sets and is richly dressed.

Zaragoza blog including paper museum, EMOZ (see below)

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Exhibit of paper folding, EMOZ, Spain. Apologies: artist’s name unknown.
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Victorian pop-up book, part of the historical collection EMOZ, Spain.

Museum of Paper, Zaragoza, Spain