#CriterionMonth The Colour Red in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers

Criterion Month is a massive collaboration across 5 websites in honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday and of the films of the Criterion Collection.  We hope the celebration of this incredible director -and these classic films – inspire others to find new cinema they love and share their discoveries with others

How important is the use of colour in film? Contemporary filmmakers, such as Wes Anderson and Barry Jenkins, have proved to be masterful executors of it. Who can forget the vivid red, pink and purple palettes of Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel? Or the overall blue hue of Jenkins’ Moonlight? With these films alone, both directors have proven colour can take on a number of meanings; it can establish mood, add to the mis-en-scene, or just make a shot look really, really pretty.

Long before those films were made, however, acclaimed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman cemented the colour technique with his 1972 feature film, Cries and Whispers.

Cries and Whispers is as haunting and all-encompassing as any Bergman film, and it explores the visceral emotions that come with love, family and death. Set in 20th-century Sweden, it follows three sisters, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) sort through their relationship while one of them is dying from cancer.

Of course, the film’s emotional depth is anchored by the strong performances by the actors, but it is Bergman’s use of colour that sets it apart. His focus on the colour red in particular is of interest, as he uses it to underscore the complexity of the relationship between each sister, as well as each of their own personal dilemmas. The colour red is as prominent as the anguish on Agnes’ face as she succumbs to her illness; the opulent red walls and carpets that fill the mansion are ever-so-subtly present in the background while the sisters fight and make up. Red represents everything from passion to love and anger, and it is often contrasted by the white and black dresses worn by the sisters, helping to convey opposing emotions such as innocence, apathy and, of course, death.

In its most unique execution, flashes of red are superimposed over close-up shots of each of the sister’s face. It’s quite a peculiar sight to see, but Bergman’s clear-cut editing indicates the beginning of a flashback sequence or shift in the narrative. Each flash of red represents a new focus in the story, in which the colour red takes on a whole new meaning.

For Agnes, red is both representative of her fears about her impending death, and the actual colour of the blood that is pulsing through her veins. The red walls in her bedroom and the red on the bedspread tightly wrapped around her seemingly enclose her as she screams out in agony, helping to showcase her inability to escape what is about to happen. She expresses her concern that her sisters will suffer or grow apart as a result of her death. She mourns for the life she could have had. She fears she won’t be missed once she is gone.

Karin, on the other hand, is often dressed in black, perhaps in an effort to further convey her icy demeanor and discomfort with her sister’s illness. She often recoils at Agnes’ touch and advises Maria, as well as the family maid, Anna, not to get too close. However, as in many of Bergman’s films, there is more to the story. Maybe Karin’s uneasiness can be rooted to her own experiences with illness, as it is revealed in a flashback sequence that she self-mutilates. The darkness of her brusque personality is exemplified through the black, angular dresses she wears, and is contrasted by the red blood that drips out of her vagina after she cuts herself with a shard of glass. While the colour red is usually to be symbolic for love, the way Bergman uses it in Karin’s sequence represents her inability to emote.

In Maria’s case, the colour red takes on a more lighthearted, albeit sensual meaning. Several flashbacks indicate Maria’s intention to reignite an affair she had with Agnes’ doctor, David. She wears a red lace dress in an effort to seduce him, and the colour also appears on the walls in the background of their many huddled conversations—contrasted once again by the darkness of their shadows. Here, red represents Maria’s lust and desire for David, as well as, perhaps, the desperation of the moment; the ticking time bomb of both Agnes’ time left on earth and Maria’s final chance to spend time with David.

While Cries and Whispers certainly isn’t Bergman’s first (or last) film to employ colour as a tool to explore human emotion, it certainly is his most dramatic execution of it and it’s no wonder the film won Best Cinematography at the 46th Annual Academy Awards in 1974.


You can view Cries and Whispers on Criterion here.


by Alexandra Colatosti

Alexandra Colatosti is a freelance writer based in Montreal. She will be graduating with a degree in Journalism and Film Studies at Concordia University in late 2018. She loves all kinds of film, especially horror and sci-fi. She also enjoys the classics but finds it hard to watch them on any old screen. Her favourite directors are Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes and Paul Thomas Anderson. Some of her most beloved films include A Woman Under the Influence, Metropolitan, La Dolce Vita and Dazed and Confused. You can find her ranting and raving about movies, among other things, onTwitter or check out some of her other work here.

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