Red Rooms

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Cries and Whispers (1972) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

In the Tate Modern, a single room houses nine of Rothko’s paintings, a series originally commissioned in the late 1950s as a mural for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building. The room is small, and interior; the paintings are large, and overwhelming, all shades of dark red. A friend of mine used to go to this room and sit for hours on days when his depression was worst. “It’s like being inside a heart,” was the way he described it.

There is a lot to be said about Rothko’s red paintings, but at the same time there is really nothing to be said beyond this: They are very, very red. The color will act differently on different viewers, even with the relative universality of red’s associations with blood and the interior body; but the guarantee is that it does act on them. Whatever red is to you, it is a lot of that, all at once.

My own version of that red room, the gallery that feels “like being inside a heart,” is the series of rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They house Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam, a “painting in 10 parts” completed in 1978, depicting in the abstract episodes from the story of the Trojan War. The paintings are not overwhelmingly red in the manner of Rothko, but rather the reds in them shock against white and charcoal, or spread through the canvas like a relentless stain. The reds appear wrong, a jarring note, a dissonant pitch. The reds overtake white canvas and scribbles of black. Perhaps the most recognizable painting of the series is titled The Fire That Consumes Everything Before It, and that spreading, unstoppable saturation is the feeling those reds offer, at least to me; they overwhelm, they consume the viewer, washing red over top of the scene and the landscape. These reds build and build and build until it feels as though the color has a tangible heartbeat, a vivid pulse, gathering into a sound.

The sound that this piled-on accumulation of red makes might be something like the scream that breaks the surface of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers a few minutes into the film, when Agnes (Harriet Andersson), waking up in horrible pain from the cancer that has been slowly killing her for years, finally cries out, as though trying to claw her way out of her own body, “I can’t stand it!” That cry is not the first thing that happens in the film, but the film is immediately red. It opens with an all-red screen, an absolute red, over which credits play in white text. The scene shifts briefly to a foggy morning scene, the long sigh of an exterior world. And then red seeps in and takes over, much as the color overwhelms the white canvas in Twombly’s paintings of Iliam. The walls inside the house are red, the curtains are red, the carpet is red, Agnes’ satin bedspread is red. Even Liv Ullmann’s sleeping face is shaded pinker than life, as though the blood were barely contained inside her skin. Agnes’ scream is a red thing, breaking the heavy silence of the red room.

Cries and Whispers is a very, very red film. It feels, in some ways, much like the Rothko room felt to my friend: Like being inside of a heart. Like Twombly’s Iliam paintings, the color consumes everything around it.

It is easy to reach for claims about the significance of red, a hugely familiar and over-signified color; one might associate it with blood and bodies, fire and violence, anger and power, or joy and luck, celebration and decadence and opulence, with money or with love, with shame or with sex. Red offers so many meanings that upon examination its seemingly obvious symbolism falls apart into illegibility. It may be tempting to assume, both in Bergman’s film and Twombly’s and Rothko’s abstract paintings, that the color has some clear reference, some straightforward symbolism, that red itself, in itself carries meaning. But Bergman never said, at least not explicitly, that the red was that of the interior body, that it was blood, or pain, that the film was about interiors and exteriors, or that the red was about anything at all. He defined the film for himself in terms of the color, saying “All my films can be thought in black and white, except for Cries and Whispers.”

But this quote is complicated and made more interesting by the fact that Cries and Whispers is not in fact Bergman’s first foray into film-making in color. The color red is present, if not as overwhelmingly so, in the earlier The Passion of Anna, which similarly dwells on Liv Ullmann’s red-tinged hair and complexion, and also sets them off against dramatic crimson clothing and backgrounds.

Bergman himself claimed to never wholly understand the significance of the color in this particular film. In the screenplay, he asserts the color as something part-unconscious, like an image from a dream returning again and again:

“…all our interiors are red, of various shades. Don’t ask me why it must be so, because I don’t know. I have puzzled over this myself and each explanation has seemed more comical than the last. The bluntest but also the most valid is probably that the whole thing is something internal and that ever since my childhood I have pictured the inside of the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red.”

The red in Cries and Whispers does not set the film apart, but it is the starting point of the film, its imaginative kernel. Red is likely to summon up strong feelings in the viewer, but we can never be certain which feelings; they are unchartable from individual to individual. Each of us arrives at the film with our own associations with and reactions to red. Cries and Whispers’ red, in a way that echoes something of how two very different painters use the color, opens a space for those reactions. The red in the film is only itself; the meaning of the film is that the film is red.  


Red dominates the film most obviously by way of the family home’s red interiors. Both visually and textually, Cries and Whispers is concerned with exteriors and interiors, with surfaces and what seethes beneath them. Again and again the characters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) in particular, try and fail to reach some interior truth, to break through the surfaces that define their lives with one another. After Agnes has died, Maria, trying to comfort her sister, insistently seeking some display of emotion and closeness, says “it’s so strange how we never touch, how we only make small talk.” A scene later, over dinner, Karin lays viciously into her sister and points out that this is the thing beneath small talk that Maria wanted, the revelation of interior truths, which spill out like blood.

In an earlier flashback, after breaking a glass at dinner, Karin repeats several times the phrase “it’s all a pack of lies,” and cuts herself on her genitals with the broken glass. Her howl of pain transforms into a horrifically erotic pleasure. Her eyes roll back ecstatically and she licks her lips, then goes into her husband’s room and displays the wound to him, smearing the blood on her face. Perhaps this vividly masochistic pleasure, this intentional suffering, is the thing beyond the small talk and the way out of the web of lies, the interior spilling out into the exterior, the red that stains dissonant across the painting. The attempt to get at the real feeling beneath the surface may be like cutting open a body, and may reveal horrors within; human connection is neither lovely nor simple when we dig beneath the facade of small talk.

The house itself often feels like it is perhaps meant to be that body. Its interiors are almost recognizable, almost realistic in the manner of a 19th century stage set. And yet, the red signals that something is off, that we are somewhere beyond a naturalistic depiction. Maria says to Karin, “I sometimes wander through this childhood home of ours, where everything is both strange and familiar, and I feel like I’m in a dream.” The color in the film has that same dreamlike sense, the familiar made strange and the strange made familiar, something dug up in between the intentional and the unconscious. It doesn’t quite make sense that the room would be this red, even as the decor and image of the stately, suffocating manor home has historical precedent and connects to Bergman’s early theater work.

August Strindberg was a famously important influence on Bergman, and his plays, in which the calcified lives of the privileged crack open to reveal the violence within, were a lifelong obsession of Bergman’s. A vein of red runs through Strindberg’s work. His most famous novel is The Red Room, a cutting critique of the wealthy in late 19th century Stockholm. In To Damascus, a trilogy of plays that takes place is a dreamlike “rose-colored room.” Cries and Whispers’ red home (which contains more than one red room) is almost a realistic depiction of rooms in the era and of Strindberg’s work and in the social class the author critiqued in his writing. Bergman’s film, with its three sisters, its visiting doctor, and its wealthy, isolated, deadening country estate, seems obviously to reference Chekhov. But what its shape holds is Strindbergian rather than Chekhovian, a psychosexual howl of selfishness and grief that refuses to understand itself.

The stately home holding family trauma within its walls would have been familiar to Bergman, both from these authors and from personal history. Speaking about Cries and Whispers, he often referenced his childhood and his relationship with his mother, of whom he has described the film as “a self-portrait.” This description seems paradoxical, and yet inhabits the same kind of interior, dreamlike emotional logic of the film itself, at once within and without the self, making someone else’s self-portrait. Bergman would never quite have lived in this kind of home, but it is what the homes of his parents or grandparents’ generation might have looked like.

The white sheets hung over the windows are an old mourning ritual in Sweden, one also featured in Strindberg, and one Bergman would likely would have seen himself as a child. But in the film the ritual is not quite exact, not quite true to life: The sheets are already hung before Agnes has died, exaggerating the temporal uncertainty of her life and death that makes the film’s narrative progression feel so unsettling. Clocks tick and chime relentlessly, and day turns into night over and over again, but we never quite know how much time has passed, how long we have been waiting, and although we witness the moment of her death, the flashbacks and dream sequences make it difficult to know when she is alive and when she is already dead, when we are waiting for the event, and when the event has already occurred.

This complication of time into a dream-like, exaggerated logic is similar to the use of red in the house’s rooms. The house is almost a faithful copy of the house from Chekhov or Strindberg or even a childhood memory, but the red is too red. Houses of this kind, in that era, in that social class, were opulent and extravagant, decorated lushly, as seen in the more historically realistic setting of Fanny and Alexander, another Bergman film that takes place in a similar time period and among a similar social class. But Cries and Whispers’ vivid and consuming red is a step into something unreal, nudging the house into the register of memory, hallucination, and dream. The red edges the narrative over the boundaries of the real.


It is difficult to hold all of Twombly’s red-tinged Fifty Days at Iliam in one’s mind at once, and easy to be overwhelmed by it. Twombly takes Homer’s grand, well-known war poem and focuses on the interpersonal stories of loss within it, on the way violence runs a vein of grief through the small lives of individuals. While the paintings take a very different approach to red than Cries and Whispers, they both share the nauseous sense of a dream, of things that are more true than explicable. The painting Achilles Mourning The Death of Patroclus shows two connected scribbles of red, one darker and one pinker, suggesting both the illegibility of grief and also grief’s connection back to the body, birth, and motherhood, by means of the umbilical cord possibly implied in the connection between the two. The reds here—and in The Fire That Consumes All Before It, in which red overtakes the canvas, blossoming out from one side to the center—are the red of battle, but also the red of grief, the primordial howl issuing out of loss, flooding over top of and undoing the recognizable story. This is a red that takes a well-known and old-fashioned myth and makes it something else, unstitches it to get at the inside beyond the recognizable.

Cries and Whispers is not quite an abstract film in the way Twombly or Rothko are abstract painters, nor is it concerned with the kind of repeated and familiar myth that Twombly confronts by taking the Trojan War as his subject (although the family itself could certainly be said to be a well-known and beloved cultural myth). Its narrative dissolves into dream and descends into flashback, but the characters are distinguishable people, and the action proceeds forward even if time is not quite charitable or as simple as it appears. But each of these artists uses red, seeking the blood and the organs within. Each offer something that may feel to the viewer like being inside a beating heart. This red feeling may also be the same wordlessness that pulses from the heavy reds in Rothko’s paintings. Bergman said of the film, “I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” While he was partly talking about the power of cinema in general, he was also talking about something specific to Cries and Whispers: he was reaching for something wordless, that larger thing beyond explicable meaning that also haunts the visceral, abstract reds used by Twombly and Rothko.

Late in Bergman’s film, after Karin and Maria’s fight at dinner, Karin runs out, screams, and then breaks down, apologizing and asking Maria’s forgiveness. As they seem to make up and come to some greater understanding, their words fade out and cello music takes over, in much the same way red washes over the scene itself.

If this is some kind of grace, it is wordless, much as red overwhelms scenes where the words give out and become a pure howl of color. In Rothko’s heavy red abstractions, color overtakes meaning and reason. The point of the color is that there is not a reason for the color, and that the color does not depict more than itself, that it is not a means by which we proceed elsewhere, but rather the place at which we have arrived. In a similar way, the red in Cries and Whispers may be the moment when we reach beyond what we want from each other, beyond closeness, family, intimacy, grace, or loss, or even the hope of redemption through God, to something that cannot be put into words or actions, a red that offers nothing but red itself.

Bergman did not claim to understand the red of Cries and Whispers, describing it as something that “wants something from me,” rather than an intentional element within his control. The red works in a similar way on the viewer: it stands in for the things that are too much to comprehend, the wordlessness and beyond-meaning sense of both grace and grief, of loss and violence, of the body and what cannot be contained within the body, the too-large things that lurk outside and refuse our linear experiences. This red is where we end up past words and beyond meaning, the way each scene gives up, when it cannot either escalate or be understood further, into the pure red screen that takes over.