Unfortnately for me, Bergman's movie is a study of bad feelings. It's hard when I can see a movie that is clearly a great work, but can't say that I liked it. It just didn't work with my mood today, but I could see why it is so famous, and it clearly is a masterpiece. I think the perfect way to put it is that although I loved it, I didn't enjoy it.
The film is about a dying woman, Agnes, and her sisters that come to see her. At times Agnes suffers horribly, having trouble breathing and calling for her maid, Anna. During all of these, long-repressed tensions between the sisters (some directed towards themselves) come to the surface. It's really just a movie about horrible feelings, about hurting oneself and others. It is also about death and dying, which is actually a bit of a taboo subject to some people. The act of dying is pretty private in America, and death as well. We don't really (generally speaking) have a huge direct part in anything that happens to our loved ones, something that is more common in other countries. Coupled with shocking images and all sorts of nasty emotions, the film is pretty intimate and painful to watch, but it doesn't shy away from the subject matter.
As much as I didn't love the film while I was watching it, it's undeniably amazing. I love that it was sort of...assaulting. It shows you dying, and the camera doesn't turn away from parts that are ugly or uncomfortable. You see everything, and I really appreciate that. It's not easy or fun, but it's pretty real. The only reason I didn't love this movie today is because I wanted some escapism, not realism. Had I been in a different mindset, I would have loved it - some day when my mood fits the film I'll have to come back to it and watch it.
In his essay, Ebert says maybe the movie is "beyond explanation", which I agree with. It cannot be explained because it's so...simple. It doesn't "mean" anything when the characters do something. There is so much raw emotion that there isn't room for an analysis, I feel. I really can appreciate this aspect of the movie as well. It's interesting to see something so straightforward but still so artistic and different. Something so confrontational - it doesn't try to hide it's message in puzzles or tricks. It just is. There is something haunting and unsettling in that, I think. Maybe because to some extent, the simplest answer is sometimes the most disturbing. For example, there is a scene in the film where Karin cuts her vagina with a piece of glass. She bleeds, and rubs the blood on her face. She does it for the most straightforward, simple reason - because she doesn't want to have sex with her husband. This is a pretty simple explanation, but it's pretty disturbing. In another movie, perhaps, she might have done this because she was sexually abused and is traumatized. This is a more complex answer, but it's less disturbing. Does this make any sense? It does to me.
I love and hate movies like this one. I hated it today because I didn't want to watch it, but I loved it when I wrote about it. Some day when I'm in a more fitting mood, I know that I will love this film, the way I love all blatantly sad and horrible films (vaguely similar films come to mind such as The Seventh Continent or, hm, anything by Lars von Trier - the kind of films where there isn't a way to emerge feeling good after you see them). I do have moods where I love these kind of films, it just wasn't today. But I've sort of fallen in love with Cries and Whispers after writing about it, because while I might not have enjoyed it, I love what it is, and what it does.
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Cries and Whispers
Buy it on Amazon
(it's also streaming on Hulu and Netflix)