Scenes from a Marriage

Mar 15, 2004

When Scenes from a Marriage (1974) was first released theatrically in the U.S., it held the voyeuristic thrill of watching a live couple flailing themselves before our eyes. The nearly three-hour film seemed to do for the institution of marriage what the spectacle of the Louds’ disintegration on PBS was doing for family life in An American Family. Indeed, in the long takes and ferreting camerawork, it bore certain resemblances not only to cinéma vérité-style documentary, but to certain passages in John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) or A Woman Under the Influence (1974). The comparison of Cassavetes to Ingmar Bergman may sound far-fetched, yet both shared around that time an interest in scenes where characters would go past the ostensible hostile climax into a confusing, unpredictable zone of appeasement and retrenchment. Not that Bergman had ever shied from long dialogue scenes, but this time he seemed to be experimenting with a more impromptu, reactive camera, intent on keeping up with the actors as they straggled through interiors looking for some safe nook, as for a boxing corner between rounds. The Swedish director’s great cameraman, Sven Nykvist, relinquished the exquisitely balanced compositions of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) or Persona (1966) for a more raw, darting visual look, which, however, generated its own offhand elegance.

Bergman had worked through, or put aside for the moment, his anguished questioning about how to live in a world without God. Now he was probing another question: On what basis can men and women, natural antagonists, expect to sustain love? Scenes from a Marriage is first and foremost a study of intimacy. Anybody who has been in a marriage or long relationship can recognize the alternations of tenderness and irritation, mind-reading rapport and the alienated conviction that one is invisible to—or completely misunderstood by—the other, which are part and parcel of true intimacy, not as some lofty ideal but as nitty-gritty reality. Bergman’s method here is to attune the audience to the couple’s segues of ambivalent mood reversals and flip-flops: they have only to reach an affectionate rapport for one of them (usually Johan, played by Erland Josephson) to force a breach. For instance, in scene four: “The Vale of Tears,” they are getting along famously. Marianne (Liv Ullman) puts off David, her compensatory lover, in order to sleep with Johan, when her estranged husband asks her if she loves David. Is he just being obtuse, or is the anger this remark provokes in Marianne his intentional goal?

Johan occasionally tries on the mask of a budding misogynist, just to see if it will fit. He refers several times to the loathing that Marianne’s body had provoked in him during their marriage, as she went about the business of daily living, going to the bathroom and so on. Since Marianne is such a dish, we can only assume that this repulsion is something very basic, on the order of men’s infantile fear of women, their maternal capacities, their mysterious secretions; he must run away from this scary intimacy, he must create a distance. If marital familiarity breeds contempt, then Johan, in order to rekindle romance and erotic feeling, must rupture the comfort of their “ridiculously bourgeois” marriage and re-establish the couple on another, more playfully illicit level. In the final scene, they are seen cheerfully cheating on their new mates, faithless to their marriage bonds if more deeply faithful to their own, earlier ones.

Part of the pleasure in Scenes from a Marriage is getting to watch two of the greatest modern screen actors, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, tangle with each other. The technical solidity, affective range, attractiveness, and chemistry of these two performers ensure that we are in secure hands, however bumpy a ride we may be in for emotionally. Bergman, following his master, Carl Dreyer, reconstitutes the cinematic art as a language of faces. Liv Ullmann has the ability to go from goddess to frump, from repressed to radiant, in a moment. Her face can look uncannily beautiful, flashing its luminous blue eyes; but she is never more moving than when they are distorted behind goofy glasses in the magnificently heartbreaking scene three, “Paula,” receiving the news that her husband intends to leave her. A certain placid, rosy-cheeked, Heidi complacency often threatens Ullmann’s screen goddess allure, but it is this very smugness, her goody-goody air, that Bergman maliciously undermines here, by using the bearded, existentially discontented Erland Josephson as her sardonic goad. Marianne, accepting the gender role society has assigned her, is the protector of daily life: the good mother and wife, the obedient daughter, the organizer of family holiday functions. She has bought into the dream of bourgeois domestic happiness, asking her husband: “Why can’t we be fat and cheerful?” Yet, always the perfectionist and self-improver, she obediently diets, because she recognizes that her job description as an ambitious man’s wife includes looking desirable and sexy. And she has her own work, too, as a divorce lawyer. Together, they comprise that terrifying contemporary behemoth, the professional couple. It is up to him to rock the boat.

Liv Ullmann gives a powerhouse performance as Marianne. She seems the stronger, more assured of the two; actually, Erland Josephson has the harder role as the more baffled Johan. A man of great potential, of whom perhaps too much was expected—a scientist whose career has stalled and a failed poet—he must nourish himself on her strength while queasily rebelling against it, insisting that we are all isolated, that true love is impossible. Even at her most disenchanted, Marianne expresses traces of tender pity for Johan, retaining an impulse to protect him. Much as he is horrified by the condescension implicit in her pity, he also feels sorry for himself; or let us say that he is not above playing Little Boy Lost to buy a little time away from his guilty conscience.

The supporting cast—a bickering married couple, a client of Marianne’s, two of Johan’s coworkers, her mother—cast fascinating sidelights on the dyadic conflict at the center.  Interestingly, their two children are almost never shown on camera. Perhaps Bergman felt the girls would seize too much of our attention, as children do, from the couple’s rough strife. As it is, Johan’s noticeable lack of suffering in abandoning his children may count heavily against him in viewers’ eyes—even if we accept his explanation that he must act drastically to save himself from premature burial.

The shorter film version of Scenes from a Marriage is more harrowing and theatrical: a string of high points. The six-part TV miniseries (which I prefer), at roughly twice the length, has more breathing room, which allows the characters to regroup. In general, a TV miniseries, broadcast over several nights, has the tendency to intersect with and form a more quotidian relationship to viewers’ lives; its characters become members of the family, and their resilience over time, regardless of the incessant crises thrown them by the script, induces a more good-humored, forgiving atmosphere. Bergman’s awareness of this comic potential, and his stylized exploitation of it, show up in the dryly witty, detached voice-overs summarizing the story so far, which head each chapter, and his invitation to look at some footage from Färo Island at the end of each scene, during the title credits. Having the credits read aloud at the end conveys a jaunty, Wellesian self-reflectiveness, calling attention to the artificial nature of the drama and implicitly mocking its seriousness. The fact that the pair so palpably continue to care for each other, in the face of violent provocation, also suggests a bittersweet, comic, almost Mozartean undertone (Bergman’s very next film project would be The Magic Flute! [1975]) beneath the embattled goings-on. Nowhere is Bergman’s puckish, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) side more in evidence than in the last scene, with Johan reaching for the phone to make a secret assignation with his ex-wife and being continually interrupted. When they get together this last time, Marianne is able to dispense her hard-won wisdom on how to live, and Johan is free to mock her by saying she sounds like a politician, without either taking deep offense. When she wakes from a nightmare and suddenly seems to subscribe to his pessimistic view of life, even doubting that she has ever loved anyone, he is there to comfort her with a reassuring pirouette, saying that indeed they have both loved each other in their selfish, partial, human ways. Whether such an ending strikes you as transcendently moving or a trifle pat (maybe both) can depend on your own optimism/pessimism threshold at the moment. In any event, their détente seems earned: after twenty years, the two have reached an accommodation, a wry understanding.  Only at the end do we fully grasp that Scenes from a Marriage is one of Bergman’s sunniest and most hopeful constructions.