Both sisters have already had brushes with death: Ullman has had an affair which prompted her husband's suicide, while Thulin has long wanted to do away with herself, at one point mutilating her own vagina out of self-hatred. As for Andersson, she has been in pain so long that she feels as though she's in the midst of death-in-life. With her two sisters wrapped up in their own problems, Harriet turns to her housekeeper Kari Sylwan for comfort; Sylwan has herself suffered the death of a child, and has developed a philosophical attitude towards impending doom.
One of the most influential moments of the film -- when two of the sisters share the innermost thoughts that they'd kept from one another for so many years -- is filmed without benefit of dialogue, with the music of Chopin (enhanced by cinematographer Sven Nykvist's carefully selected camera angles) speaking for the ladies.
While Cries and Whispers only won the Oscar for cinematography, the film did very well for itself in international awards contests.