Sixth time with Bergman, the greatest.
Opening with the estate. Leaves and shade, steep lines, mist – present absence. A wreathed statue with a lyre – facing away – cuts to distance then disappears completely. Apollo? often depicted with the instrument – his association with music accounts for his balance and self control; two maxims carved at his Delphi temple: ‘Nothing in excess’ and ‘Know thyself’. CaW, in which B’s experiments in identity and faith converge, dramatises failure of these virtues, uses them to look right into us. (music and masculinity recede almost entirely, too)
Cut to clocks. Ornate, silver, mechanical, figurines and flourishes. A pendulum just visible inside. Then Agnes awaking: an extended shot of her tortured emergence from unconsciousness – her shapeless pain legible in her gasp, her twisted brow. Later Maria awakens silent next to a doll that looks almost exactly like her, surrounded by toy houses, wooden figures, tiny pianos. ––– Encasement, repression, something occult behind cracked masks. (Agnes’ true voice released from her diary: recurring riffs on the best moment in Persona) CaW is a procession of tortured faces but we never return to the transfixing mute expressiveness of Agnes awakening.
Agnes unseen watching her mother in the garden. Maria and the Dr in the mirror, reading the face: perverse joy in violent interpretation of lines, smile, eyes. Karin the opposite: with inquisitive Anna, “don’t look at me” – a slap “Forgive me!” Anna shakes her head, teary. With Maria: “I know you. I see it all, nothing escapes me” – infliction, but Maria’s entreaties to introspective connection are as toxic to her. “Pity” is their last word at parting.
Agnes’ back to us, tended to at the bed, lank brown hair falling over angular shoulders – christlike. At her death, the vicar’s astonishing plea: we suffer that live; bear our grief to God; bear our supplications – “ask him for a meaning to our lives.” Always abandonment with Bergman: in Winter Light it is suffused into mood and mise-en-scène; in Through A Glass Darkly it is vocalised in barbed introspective dialogue; in CaW it is movement, glances, wordless expressions. Maria: “I can’t stand the distance and the silence.”
This film is extremely unsettling: the cries cut through you at jagged angles, the whispers trickle through the wall behind and burn your ears; but in the clockwork, the blood and wine, the empty wealth, the gothic immurement there is something else that refines the baroque horror of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the oneiric illogic of the black lodge. Ebert was right to note that “we want to look away … we don’t want to know.” Yet it slips through your fingers, sometimes resolving itself into a formula: guilt, repentance, haunting (with Anna’s piety and Agnes’ sacrifice). This elusiveness is epitomised by Maria here:
Sometimes here in our childhood home, where everything is strange yet familiar, I feel I’m in the middle of a dream; I get the feeling something decisive is about to happen to us.
Yet there is in every scene something unspoken by the characters, the director. The breathless confidence after dinner is a resolution, but one muted by music, a mime show. (Apollo intervening? Bergman’s hand over the mike) The elliptic flashbacks are no more tidy set-ups than the incredible pietà tableau is a conclusion. This something else, it won’t go away – this is the absent presence, the unheimlich ambiguity, the turn of the screw. (Christine Brooke-Rose against “this urge for transforming possibility into certainty” in A Rhetoric of the Unreal) This isn’t the “broken and anamorphic mirror” of Persona, a puzzle that challenges us to assemble it; this is irreparable.
Breathtaking final scene: purity, devotion descending a hill amid Klimt leaves, Agnes’ reverie: “connection … happiness … perfection.” (latter weirdly given as ‘consummation’ in the Tartan subtitles) Despite her symbolism, this is the uncomfortable reclamation of religion in TaSD recast: Harriet Andersson again sacrificed, but now present as we have seen she will remain – then snip tape cut to red truth: “and so the cries and whispers go away.” It is the almost forgotten moment of ecstasy in which she escapes.