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In Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973), we hear Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson before we see them. They're not talking the kind of talk that comes from the mouths of human beings. They're talking stiltedly, in platitudes, evasions and vague generalities. A moment after the title cards they're talking against give way to visuals, the talk is contextualized. They're being interviewed by a journalist for a woman's magazine on the subject of their so-called ideal marriage of 10 years. Given Bergman's status as cinema's poet of the bleak and unsparing, it comes as a storm warning. But not to the couple. Yet.
Josephson's Johan, a science professor whose self-effacing reasonableness can't disguise an almost smug self-satisfaction, later declares married life to be full of evasions. Ullmann's Marianne, a lawyer who specializes in divorce, remarks that in her work it's often as if husband and wife are talking on faulty telephones. With a will to blindness, she says of her own marriage: "There's never any friction to speak of." The rest of the film, of course, consists of almost nothing but friction, set in motion when they deride the magazine article over dinner and drinks with another couple they've known a long time. Ignited by drink, their guests' long-simmering marital tensions explode in an acid bath of mutual bitterness right out of Strindberg, who, not surprisingly, is cited by one of them.
Cut to the third scene. This is probably the place to say that Scenes from a Marriage unfolds in six scenes separated by about 10 years. It was shot as six 50-minute episodes for TV in 1973, edited down to a 169-minute feature film by Bergman the following year. That it was made quickly and on a low budget governed its plan of attack - a highly effective one. It's almost all shot in extreme close-up, with the squareish dimensions of the TV screen meaning that hairlines, brows and sometimes chins are trimmed, too, to accommodate the flatter, wider film frame when Bergman transferred it from 16mm to 35mm. This in-your-face film benefits from its in-your-face esthetic filmed by Sven Nykvist, who was every bit as much a longtime Bergman collaborator as any of the actors in his so-called repertory company. It means that the film largely unfolds on the faces of Ullmann and Josephson. The other characters range from peripheral to unseen, existing only as unheard voices on the other end of this or that phone, or entirely absent, such as, for instance, the couple's two daughters.
The third scene, when Johan arrives home unexpected early from a trip to Paris and interrupts Marianne's happy prattling and chirping to announce that he's leaving her for a younger woman, is the film's most devastating. It mostly rides Ullmann's ability to convey volumes with facial expressions. Bergman's screenplay is precise and ruthlessly honest. The characters' words are distillations of emotions, never softened by preliminaries or what would be the hesitations of real-life speech. It's here that we remember Ullmann's breakthrough performance in Persona (1966) in which her character, a traumatized actress, is almost entirely mute. Here, she's both thunderstruck and bereft as he, obviously having to muster all his resolve, bores on about how he's felt suffocated by marriage and has wanted out for years.
A part of his desperation arises from a scene in which a longtime friend and work colleague (Gunnel Lindblom) tells him that the poetry he wrote and showed her in confidence is mediocre. We can see Johan beginning to be haunted by the fear that he will not live up to the promise of his university days and will in fact turn out to be total mediocrity. His crumbling self-confidence only stiffens his resolve to be away from the woman who has lived with his shortfall long enough to chart it. Weak and egocentric, he would be described as an exemplar of male menopause if the film had opened today. He's cruel, in short, in only the way a weak man can be. Not that this helps Marianne. She begins on a light, happy note, plunges into a desperate attempt to keep him home, including a suggestion of sex "for old time's sake," ends in despair. When he leaves, she throws herself into bed, pulls the covers up over her head, only to suddenly emerge to phone a mutual friend with the news. When she learns that everyone in their circle knew of Johan's affair, her desolation is completed by humiliation. She's shattered.
A few years pass, and by the fourth tableau the pendulum has swung. Johan appears at what is now her flat, and as they sit on the same moss-green velvet covered couch they occupied when the film began, he confesses that life with his new woman is draining, and hints at a rapprochement. But she has more than recovered. She has moved on, acquired confidence in her femininity (Johan sarcastically says women's lib would be proud of her), and likes her freedom. Coquettish but purposeful, she toys with him, including flirting, but keeps him at a distance. When she begins to read from a notebook of her feelings liberated by therapy sessions, he falls asleep. Later, Marianne remarks that Johan seems to have shrunk. But never more than here does his implosion seem more unmistakable. To Bergmanphiles, this will not come as a surprise. He almost always admires his women characters more than his men.
In the fifth episode of Scenes from a Marriage, things get violent. They meet after hours at his office to finalize the divorce papers, and interrupt the scrutiny of the documents to make love on the carpet. When Johan misinterprets the significance of this, he erupts, and hits Marianne. When she goes to wash the blood off her face, she remarks that had they fought like this while married, confronting what they had evaded, they might never have divorced. The final chapter is a soft and - for Bergman - almost hopeful coda. A few more years later, freed of the expectations accompanying marriage and the grapplings of a divorced couple, they meet for an assignation, seeming lighter, more carefree, able finally to enjoy one another. The enjoyment escalates to emotional nourishment when Johan comforts Marianne after she awakens from a nightmare. Relaxed, mellower, now married to other spouses, they can admit to their respective shortcomings and limitations in rueful, bittersweet even tender ways, having finally arrived at an intimacy they never knew in marriage. Johan says they live in fear, uncertainty and lack of wisdom - it's the lecturer in him. But they do seem happier and fuller at the end than at the beginning.
In that sense, Scenes from a Marriage is atypical Bergman. Ironically, in his autobiography, Bergman says it proved remarkably easy to film, a boon considering its tight production schedule. Apart from its minimalist esthetic, distractions were at a minimum. Bergman converted a semi-derelict barn near his house on the island of Faro into a little studio, where most of the filming was done (Stockholm was needed for only a few exteriors). Bergman directed far more stage productions than films, and drew most of his regulars from his theatrical associations, Ullmann and Josephson included. Pros that they were, they showed up in solid command of their lines. As for Bergman's screenplay, he famously said that while he spent just three months writing it, it took a lifetime of experience to supply. The lacerating scene in which Johan informs Marianne of his decision to leave her, for instance, was lifted, Bergman wrote, from the real-life scene that ended his second marriage and began his third.
Even the most cursory look at Bergman tells you that he was not a man for whom any of life came easily, starting with existence itself. By the time he filmed Scenes from a Marriage, he had moved from agonizing over God's silence to the more immediate problem of how two people can live together. He was married five times and had nine children, including one with Ullmann, to whom he was not married. Obviously, Scenes was written from an intimate and unflinching knowledge of the trenches of marriage, but with compassion replacing the chilly remoteness of Bergman's earlier celebrated films. He was no stranger to marriage's potholes, pitfalls, landmines and chasms. But he's bracingly honest about them. His life suggests that he kept believing in marriage, but not in lying about it. What sets him apart from his fellow Scandinavian titans of discord, Strindberg and Ibsen (at many points, Scenes echoes Ibsen's A Doll's House in its rejection of hollow marriage) is his dogged belief that male-female bonding can happen. Scenes from a Marriage is, finally, a milestone of battered integrity.
Producer: Lars-Owe Carlberg
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Film Editing: Siv Lundgren
Cast: Liv Ullmann (Marianne), Erland Josephson (Johan), Bibi Andersson (Katarina), Jan Malmsj (Peter), Gunnel Lindblom (Eva), Anita Wall (Fru Palm), Barbro Hiort af Orns (Fru Jacobi), Lena Bergman (Karin, syster till Eva), Wenche Foss (Modern), Rossana Mariano (Eva, 12 r), Bertil Norstrm (Arne).
by Jay Carr
The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography, by Ingmar Bergman, Viking, 1988
Changing, by Liv Ullmann, Knopf, 1977
Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage, by Robert Emmet Long, Abrams, 1994
Talking with Ingmar Bergman, edited by G. William Jones, SMU Press, 1983
A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson, Knopf, 1994
Magill's Survey of Cinema: Foreign Language Films, edited by Frank Magill, Salem Press, 1986
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, edited by Nicholas Lofting, St. James Press, 1992