Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema

Scenes from a Marriage: Natural Antagonists

On Film / Essays — Mar 13, 2004

At the age of fifty-five, having made some thirty-four features that established him as one of the world’s undisputed cinematic masters, Ingmar Bergman embarked for the first time on a television miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage. It would be shot in Stockholm and on the island of Fårö, on 16 mm film for only $200,000—more cheaply than his most recent feature, Cries and Whispers, and with none of that film’s baroque color experimentation. Instead, it would focus closely on two characters over a period of ten years, through the dissolution of their marriage. The couple, Marianne and Johan, were played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, two of the most trusted members of Bergman’s repertory company. His script would perforce draw heavily on autobiographical experience: the director had several failed marriages behind him already, and his stormy live-in relationship with Ullmann had recently broken up. The resulting work has a rueful warmth and muzzy affection for human frailty that is atypical for this often dour, severe director.

Premiering on Swedish television in six parts in 1973, Scenes from a Marriage was subsequently reedited and shortened for theatrical release. When the theatrical version of Scenes from a Marriage was first shown in the United States, in 1974, it raised the voyeuristic thrill of watching a live couple flailing themselves raw before our eyes. The three-hour film seemed to do for marriage what the spectacle of the Louds’ disintegration on PBS’s An American Family had recently done for the nuclear household. Indeed, in its long takes and ferreting camera work, it bore resemblance not only to a cinema-verité documentary but to passages in John Cassavetes’s Faces or A Woman Under the Influence. To compare Cassavetes with Bergman may seem far-fetched, yet they both had an interest in scenes that go past the “normal” climax into a confusing, unpredictable zone of appeasement and retrenchment. Not that Bergman had ever shied away from lengthy dialogue scenes, but this time he seemed to be experimenting with a more improvisatory, reactive camera, intent on keeping up with the actors as they straggled through interiors looking for some safe nook, as though for a boxing corner between rounds. The director’s great cameraman Sven Nykvist here relinquished the exquisitely balanced compositions of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Persona (1966) for a more decentered, darting visual approach, which, however, had its own scruffy elegance. 

By 1973, Bergman had worked through, or put aside, 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 long relationship can recognize in it the alternations of tenderness and irritation, of mind-reading rapport and alienated conviction that one is being taken for granted or completely misunderstood. Such is the nature of true intimacy, not as some lofty ideal but as 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 equanimity for one of them (usually Johan) to force a breach. For instance, post-breakup they are getting along famously, Marianne having put off David, her compensatory lover, on the phone in order to sleep with Johan, when her estranged husband asks her if she loves David. Is he just being obtuse, or is the exasperated anger this remark provokes in Marianne his intention?

Johan, who is not above trying on the mask of budding misogynist just to see if it fits, refers several times to the loathing that Marianne’s body provoked in him during their marriage, as she went about the business of daily living, going to the bathroom and so on. Since Ullmann is so comely, we can only assume that this repulsion is something more 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, feels obliged to rupture the comfort of his and Marianne’s “ridiculously bourgeois” marriage and reestablish the couple on another, more playfully illicit level.

Part of the pleasure in Scenes from a Marriage is getting to watch Ullmann and Josephson—two of the greatest modern screen actors—tangle with each other. Josephson had been acting in Bergman films from the very beginning of the director’s career, in 1946, and was an established star of the Swedish theater as well as a writer and sometime director, while Ullmann, a celebrated Norwegian actress who had debuted with Bergman at twenty-seven as the nonspeaking heroine of Persona, would go on to make nearly a dozen films with him all told. 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 Th. Dreyer, continues to reconstitute the cinematic art as a language of faces. Ullmann has the ability to go from goddess to frump, from repressed to radiant, in a moment. Her face can look uncannily beautiful, flashing her luminous blue eyes, but she is never more moving than when those eyes are distorted behind goofy glasses, as in the heartbreaking scene where she receives the news that her husband intends to leave her. A certain placid, rosy-cheeked, Heidi-like complacency often threatens Ullmann’s movie-star allure, but it is this very primness, her goody-goody air, that Bergman maliciously undermines here by using the bearded, existentially discontented Josephson as her sardonic goad. Marianne, accepting the gender role society has assigned her while also working as a divorce lawyer, 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. Together, Marianne and Johan compose that terrifying contemporary behemoth: the professional couple. It is up to him to rock the boat.

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

The supporting characters—a bickering married couple, a client of Marianne’s, two of Johan’s cowork­ers, Marianne’s mother—cast fascinating sidelights on the central dyadic conflict. Interestingly, the couple’s two children are barely shown. Perhaps Bergman felt they would seize too much of our sympathetic attention, as children on-screen often do, from their parents. As it is, Johan’s sanguine abandonment of his children will count heavily against him with some viewers—especially those who do not buy his explanation that he must act drastically to save himself from premature burial.

The shorter film version is more harrowing and theatrical: a string of high points. The five-hour, six-part television version (which I prefer), at nearly twice the length, has more breathing room, which allows the characters to regroup. A TV mini­series, broadcast over several nights, has the ability to intersect with and form a quotidian relationship to viewers’ lives; its characters become members of the family, and their resilience over time, regardless of incessant crises called for by the script, induces a more good-humored, forgiving atmosphere. Bergman’s awareness of the buoyancy that repetition and length can bestow, and his stylized exploitation of it, show up in the TV version’s drily witty, detached voice-overs, which summarize the story so far at the head of each chapter and invite the viewer to look at some footage from Fårö during the end credits. The fact that these credits are also read aloud conveys a jaunty, Wellesian self-reflectiveness, calling attention to the film’s artifacted quality and implicitly mocking its protagonists’ self-seriousness. 

That Johan and Marianne so palpably continue to care for each other, in the face of much nasty provocation, also suggests a bittersweet, comic, almost Mozartean undertone (Bergman’s very next film project would be The Magic Flute) beneath the embattled goings-on. Nowhere is the filmmaker’s puckish Smiles of a Summer Night side more in evidence than in the last episode, where the couple are seen cheerfully planning to cheat on their current mates, faithless to their new marriage bonds if more deeply faithful to their own, earlier one. Johan is seen 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 comes across as transcendently moving or a trifle pat (or maybe both) may depend on your own level of optimism 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 grasp that Scenes from a Marriage is, on balance, one of Bergman’s most life-affirming and hopeful constructions.

This piece was originally written for Criterion in 2003. It has been updated slightly for this release.