Every time I watch Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, I am stunned that a film could be so full. Here is this thing stuffed with detail, design, behavior, emotion, surprise, and skill. Like Fanny and Alexander and Face to Face, the work exists as both a miniseries made for television and a feature film cut from that series. While the feature is an interesting study in editing decisions, the series is the format for me. Yes, there is more content and space to regroup between heightened moments, but I also find the episode titles, the recaps of previous episodes, and the narrated end credits over images of Färo Island incredibly endearing. Bergman later adapted Scenes from a Marriage into a stage play. I would love to have been in the audience for that production (or to have witnessed his childhood puppet theater shows, for that matter). But we have no access to his theatrical wife, and so we’re left with his cinematic mistress.
The scene I’ve chosen comes early on in both versions of the movie. Marianne (Liv Ullmann) has decided that she does not want to go to her mother’s place for Sunday dinner. She and her husband, Johan (Erland Josephson), volley over who will break the news to her mother. Eventually, Marianne makes the telephone call while Johan sits near her listening. She is not successful at breaking the date, and they will go to Sunday dinner after all. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, and an unlikely candidate for anyone’s favorite scene. But scenes like this lay essential, meticulous groundwork for the fireworks that follow.
What an education in performance you get from these two. The seemingly practical text jumps to life to reveal the curves of this couple’s relationship, how they think, the rhythm of their lives. I like the quick cut to Johan before we settle into a long take of Marianne on the telephone. This type of thoughtful balance is all over the film.
The telephone call is a wonderful example of how to write missing information. Hearing only one side of the conversation increases our curiosity, engages our imagination, and makes the turns much more unpredictable. It also implies that the world of the film is much bigger than what we can access at the moment. And during the call, Ullmann moves so skillfully between psychological spaces: her solitary personal one, the ones that exist between her and her mother and husband. She also moves quickly between humor, meekness, triumph, sternness, frustration, resignation. In a short period, the film efficiently communicates that this is a complex person with rich relationships, experiences, opinions, sensitivities, and thoughts. The field of view and the uninterrupted take are essential in allowing us to comfortably observe all of this.
The production is tightly designed to harmonize with Ullmann’s face. I’m not sure if the obsession is Bergman’s or mine (or cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s) (or all of ours). The way her hair color is reflected in the wood, her eyes in the color of the phone, her skin tone a perfect note in the palette, even when that palette includes green. Costume, hair, makeup, prop design all seem casual, but they are deliberate. This is a realism that very subtly minimizes some elements to express complexity in others. Again, balance is at play. For example, the inner layers of the costumes have the more detailed patterns, and the outer layers are solid and blend fluidly with the environment.
Following the call, Johan is full of good humor. I love the extreme words that make their way into an outwardly lighthearted conversation: revolution, smothered, persecution, cheating, kill. All these things are in the air and will come to express themselves more directly in time. When Marianne suggests that she and Johan ride to work together, it complicates some unspoken plan of his, and he does a terrible job of hiding his reaction. However, Marianne doesn’t notice this at all, and so we experience some distance in their relationship, emphasized by Marianne’s moving offscreen into another room. And then Johan starts to discreetly make a phone call that he does not complete. This moment gives us Johan’s perspective, weighted by mystery, to balance Marianne’s perspective, detailed and nimble. It also achieves a visual balance; both characters now have similarly framed shots in which they hold the telephone receiver and pretty much show off their matching wedding rings to the camera.
We’ve covered so much territory, it’s hard to believe the scene occurs over just a few square meters of real estate. In no time at all, I am convinced they live there. With their modest, fluid changes in field of view, the visuals are very dynamic. In particular, I like how the camera moves in and out when both characters are seated in the stairway, changing the proportion of the outside view coming through the window. The trees, with their vibrant, dissonant shade of green and their rustling, seem to charge the air like the talk of revolution. As controlled as the picture is, as controlled as these characters’ lives are, nature, their nature, will come to show itself.
Patrick Wang is the writer and director of In the Family, playing in theaters across the U.S.