Posted on Thursday, February 18th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
With The Witch opening this week, we sat down with writer/director Robert Eggers to do something a little different. We asked him to name the three films that most influenced his tremendous new horror movie and we would discuss his work through the lens of what inspired him. In part one of this series, we talked about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining In part two, we chatted about Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. For the third and final chapter in this series, we dove into Ingmar Bergman‘s gut-wrenching drama Cries and Whispers.
Every serious film fan must eventually dive into the filmography of the great Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker whose work helped and shape and define the modern definition of cinematic drama. Over a career that lasted six decades and 67 directorial credits (including feature films documentaries, and television miniseries), Bergman used film to grapple with faith and loss, to explore religion as a root of suffering and a means of personal redemption. His work speaks volumes to so many people of so many different beliefs and backgrounds. It’s telling that you can see echoes of his work in films of all genres, from filmmakers whose output doesn’t bear an obvious connection to movies like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Filmmakers as diverse as Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro have noted his influence in their own views on cinema.
But yes, his work can be intimidating. Bergman is a filmmaker who stares into the abyss and his films can feel like a therapy session or a confession. Here is an artist using celluloid to cleanse his soul. Cries and Whispers is one of his more difficult films to watch and discuss because it is such a brutal experience, but it’s easy to see how this exquisitely made but deeply uncomfortable chamber piece planted a few seeds in Robert Eggers that fully blossom during the course of The Witch.
Cries and Whispers establishes its premise quickly: a woman is dying and her sisters have come to attend to her in her final days. But she is in great pain and her death does not come quickly. Long-buried emotions rise to the surface. Flashbacks to events both joyous and melancholy feed us precious morsels of backstory. And in the film’s supernaturally tinged final act, grief and jealously and cruelty and love all rise to the surface as every character is forced to confront their fear and loathing. The bonds of friendship and sisterhood are tested and broken. Through it all, Bergman tells their story with chilly precision, using shots that feel a little too long and close-ups that feel a little too close, to place you in uncomfortable proximity to so much raw agony. The costumes are black and white and grey, but the sets are invaded by red, a reminder of life in a sea of death.
You can see similar concepts at play in the more overtly genre chills of The Witch, a film that uses its horror premise to explore how the tiny lies and small betrayals that lurk under the surface of a family slowly tear them apart. You can’t pick your family, so what happens when these people you’re stuck with reveal that they may not have your best intentions at heart? That the person that is obligated to love you doesn’t even like you, their affection more of a habit than a true feeling? The characters at the heart of The Witch desperately reach into their faith and pray to God to guide them, to heal them. The characters of Cries and Whispers don’t even have that much – if there is a higher power, he abandoned them long ago.
The final portion of my conversation with Robert Eggers continues on the next page.