Ingrid Bergman said that this film started as an image in his mind. It just kept popping up there, until eventually he turned it into a movie. "Images obstinately resurface without my knowing what they want with me; then they disappear only to come back, looking exactly the same. Four women dressed in white in a big red room. They came and went, whispered to one another, and were utterly secretive."
This makes a lot of sense, actually. I've never seen anyone use colour in cinema like Bergman does here. You couldn't live in this house. It's a visual composition rather than a living space, in which you couldn't wear any clothes that didn't happen to be black, white or red. It's both surreal and attention-grabbing enough that I almost want to rewatch the film in search of symbolic links between the characters and their clothes. However Bergman's explanation of this goes as follows: "Don't ask me why all our interiors are different shades of red, because I don't know. I've pondered the reason myself and found each explanation more comical than the other. The bluntest but also most tenable is probably that the whole thing is something internal - and that ever since childhood I have imagined the soul to be a damp membrance in varying shades of red."
As for the story, it's a study of three sisters, their fat maid and their physical and psychological problems. One sister (Harriet Andersson) is dying, another one (Liv Ullmann) is having an affair with a man who to her face describes her as "bored", "sneering" and "indifferent" and the third sister (Ingrid Thulin) needs professional help. The things that stop it from being irredemably arty and pointless are:
1. The acting, especially an almost terrifying confrontation between Thulin and Ullman. Great Scott, they're monumental. They've got a script on the level of Chekhov or Tolstoy and they're hitting it like a freight train. If you ever wanted a lacerating study of broken people and the things they'll say and do, watch this film.
2. What Thulin does with the broken glass. Hard to watch, that bit.
3. The bit at the end where Bergman goes all magic realist and pushes his brittle heroines past an entirely new set of breaking points.
The nudity doesn't count because Bergman isn't interested in it. It's important thematically that all four heroines bare themselves, but the camera isn't leering at them, or even usually showing that much. As for the story elements, the DVD claims that it's a pick-and-mix of earlier Bergman films, e.g. Sawdust and Tinsel, Winter Light, The Silence, Smiles of a Summer Night. I can't comment on those and in any case I don't see that it really matters, although I do know that Bergman said the following during shooting. "It's the same old film every time. The same actors, the same scenes, the same problems. The only thing that makes it different is that we're older."
What's interesting about Bergman, I think, is that he's writing stage plays as deep and uncompromising as any classics, then putting them on screen with a sensibility that's at once caring deeply about stage theatre and the medium of cinema. Nothing is more important than the performances. I love the way he starts the film by just listening to the sounds of silence and letting Andersson find her own space for her lines. I enjoy his disregard for literalism, not just with the magic realist ending but also with the insane set/costume design and Liv Ullmann's cameo as her own mother.
Incidentally, the film's US distributor was Roger Corman. No one else thought it would sell. It ended up winning a Best Cinematography Oscar and being nominated for Costume Design, Original Screenplay, Director and Picture.
There are so many different elements here. Bergman tells as much with his actress's hands as he does in dialogue. The passage of time is almost a living thing, as Ullmann, Thulin and the maid (Kari Sylwan) wait for Andersson to die. Then there are the cries and whispers themselves. This film isn't cheerful, but it's also not purely bleak since it revolves around darkness vs. light, with the optimism of Andersson and Sylwan being contrasted with the destructively inward-turning psyches of Ullmann and Thulin. Eventually the former could be said to win... but only in a final flashback, leaving open the question of where these women will be going in their future lives. This is a chilly film, with its emotions usually buttoned up, but it's impossible not to respect it.