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How Does the Contrasting Color Palette of “Cries and Whispers” Assist the Story?

“All of my films can be thought of in terms of black and white, except Cries and Whispers.” - Ingmar Bergman

Bergman speaks to the levels upon which Cries and Whispers (1972) works. It is a deeply emotional picture and its cinematography, for which Sven Nykvist won an Academy Award, uses a rich contrast of colors to represent blood, death, and faith. It is a tight film, largely set indoors between the walls of an elegant 19th-century manor, and its saturated color and light scheme makes for some of Bergman and Nykvist’s most evocative work.

Red, black, and white are film’s primary colors, each capable of standing up powerfully against the others to create striking visual comparisons. Their metaphoric presence helps drive the narrative above all other elements. Cries and Whispers is so heavily reliant on its colors and the images they create that it could almost exist as a silent film, with facial expressions, camera angles and visual contrasts proving more important and expressive than the dialogue. In truth, the language of the film is defined through its cinematography, not by its literal words.

Red is the color in the forefront of every scene, especially within the manor. Bergman felt the color red reflects the interior of the soul. Countless film analysts cite Bergman when he said “In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the color red as the interior of the soul. 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.” That is a profoundly Bergman interpretation of the intangible construction of the human self.

Red also stands in for the female womb, or the source of both life and sexuality. This is necessary, both as the womb is the reason for Agnes’ (Harriet Andersson) presence on her deathbed, and sex is the source of much her sisters’ sorrow and torment.

Red is the color used to dissolve between scenes and transport us from flashbacks to the present, and to the film’s interwoven moments of fantasy. It also serves a classic role as the color of desire and lust, such as the flashbacks when Maria (Liv Ulmann) and the doctor (Erland Josephson) engage in their infedelities.

White is a color thematically linked to divinity and faith. Agnes, the film’s symbol of repression and virginity, is dressed in white as she awaits her death. She is of a purity obviously greater than that of her two sisters and her ascension to heaven is certain—even her priest admits Agnes possesses deeper faith than he. Anna (Kari Sylwan), Agnes’ maid and caretaker shares in an ideological purity that results in the film’s most direct image of faith when the two effectively mirror the Pieta.

Black, the film’s third primary color, is of course the color of death. In Bergman’s films, he has classically linked black with priests and Christianity as a whole—perhaps more notably in one of his other seminal works, The Seventh Seal (1957), in which a Crusades-era knight plays a literal game of chess with Death as he questions his faith and seeks to perform a final act of redemption before dying. The exploration of faith and the quest for redemption are a constant focus of his films.

In Cries and Whispers, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) wears black on several occasions, as she is perhaps the darkest of the sisters. In her most shocking character moment, however, where she mutilates her genitals and spreads the blood on her face, she does so in a white nightgown to present her husband with the image of her hatred.

Cries and Whispers combines its contrasting colors in unique ways. Red is ever-present, but its association with either white or black creates a dichotomy that seems to evaluate how contending pressures impact a person’s constitution. If red is the soul, as Bergman suggests, then it appears in constant battle between itself and its various repressions. Even the film’s title, two opposing intensities of verbal projection, is captured in this architecture of opposing forces.

The film studies pain, anguish, suffering, love, and faith. Much of this is done quietly, such as Karin’s self-hatred and resentment of Maria. Other pains, like the torture of Agnes’ failing body, are obtuse and violent in their extremity. If one is to pair the four women in Cries and Whispers into two groups, they would be Karin and Maria, and Anna and Agnes. Anna’s ever-repressed emotions are the comforting foil to Agnes’ intense outbursts of pain, and the forward manner of Maria’s sexuality contends with Karin’s loathing of the subject. Each character seems ready to explode at any moment, yet for the most part, aside from when Agnes is physically tortured by her ailment, the women hold their conflicts within.

Cries and Whispers provides little settlement for its agonies. Agnes dies, and the rest of the women finish much in the way they started. But the film’s final scene, which breaks free of the confines of interior settings and takes us outdoors, where the color palette switches to daylight and green grass and a brightness not seen at any point prior, allows for contemplation. It is an affirmation of life told through death. Anna reads from Agnes’ diary and recalls a scene where the four women were together, outdoors, swinging on a swing. For a moment, their melancholy brought everyone peace. Dressed entirely in angelic white and inhabiting a luscious outdoor setting, the image can easily be interpreted as one of a heavenly nature since Agnes has died and the scene is built from her memories of peace. It is perhaps the only scene in the film where nobody is in pain, indicating Agnes’ absolution.

Collectively, the use of color and the camerawork heavily trained on the actors’ faces create an extremely powerful study of human nature and emotion.