Scenes from a Marriage (Criterion Channel)
Written & Directed by Ingmar Bergman
While I am very much aware of Ingmar Bergman, I sadly admit he is a blind spot in my personal cinema education. The only other work I’ve watched is the theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. With HBO releasing a modern remake of Scenes From a Marriage, I thought it would be an excellent time to watch the original and expand my knowledge of the Swedish director’s filmography. The only thing I really knew going into the six-episode mini-series was that it had such a profound effect on Europeans that it caused a spike in the divorce rate due to its frank portrayal of marriage and the difficulties associated with the union.
Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) are an affluent professional Swedish couple. At the start of the series, they are interviewed by a magazine about love in the modern world. At first glance, they appear to be the kind of married couple others might aspire to. However, more is revealed after the interview, such as Johan learning Marriane is pregnant for the third time and their decision to have an abortion. Marianne becomes restless, wanting to shirk off the cultural expectations and routines they are caught in, and Johan ends up having an affair with a younger woman. This culminates in his decision to leave and live with his girlfriend. Instead of the man ending up feeling free and liberated, Marianne is the one who discovers herself. But breaking their relationship is much messier than they both planned on, and the connection between the two continues a decade later.
Scenes From a Marriage is a filmed stage play, with our two primary actors often the only people we see on screen. A handful of other characters appear at the beginning and end, but the majority of episodes are just Marianne and Johan in conversation. While that may sound dull and monotonous to modern ears, it provides a beautiful focus to the story, allowing the actors to really go in-depth with these characters. And we get to see every shade of these two of the course of the series, from moments that will make you like either of them to others that will possibly raise your disgust.
What’s most interesting are the contrasts between the perspectives of these characters. Johan is very comfortable, positioned well in a patriarchal society. He’s managed to attain a certain level of professionalism and is well-liked by his colleagues. Marianne is the more openly dissatisfied. She has been the primary parent to their two daughters yet also has a career as a lawyer. As the series goes on, we find she has yearned for more profound experiences and greater sexual exploration but struggles to communicate that, not helped in any way by Johan’s dismissive nature. The discussion of abortion is the first example, with Johan quickly deciding on the procedure while Marianne wants to talk and feel out what the right choice will be. She eventually relents and doesn’t feel regret but rather resentment over just being pushed into a decision, even if she ultimately agreed with it.
One of the most stunning moments occurs in episode three, where Johan reveals his affair and his firm plans to leave, not even sitting down with his daughters to explain why he will be gone. Marianne’s reaction is so calm, lost in shock at the final knife in her marriage. She never explodes with anger in this episode, which will come later, and just so mournfully goes about a routine of helping her husband pack. He becomes increasingly irritated, having prepared himself for a likely outburst, and appears to resent her submissive nature. I found Ullman’s performance so realistic, most people’s reaction in response to a sudden life-changing event. We cling to normality, routine to avoid facing reality. Bergman frames these moments in a way that audiences will find harsh but very honest.
By deconstructing a marriage, Bergman is able to explore what it means to be connected to another person. We watch the couple become separated, fight and rage through a divorce, only to continually end up having sex and even cheating on their new spouses with each other. Bergman was no stranger to ending marriages, having five of them over his life and even fathering a child with Ullman while married to one of these wives. The term “marriage” seems to take on a greater meaning beyond the legal definition, a connection between two people that keeps them drifting together again despite all the destruction it can cause. Because they have been together so long, they know each other, positive and negative, better than most others in their lives. There is a sense of satisfaction in these private moments. We can objectively say they need to separate and move on with their lives, but that’s easier said than done when you aren’t one of the parties in the relationship. I think anyone who has been in a long-running relationship that came to an end can identify with how that attraction doesn’t automatically dissolve even if you feel intense anger for the other.
In the vast unknown of living, it is a powerful thing to have another person you can cling to for even the slightest sense of connection. We learn later in the series that Marianne was unfaithful much earlier than Johan but kept it to herself. Humans so often second guess their happiness, contemplating if something better is out there or sabotaging themselves by creating “escape pods” just in case their current relationship falls apart. They convince themselves they have to keep swimming like sharks, never resting because of insecurities about themselves and their partner. There are fewer portrayals of marriage more searing and rough than what Bergman has presented here. It’s easy to see how the series shook up so many sedentary lives and caused them to contemplate what sort of relationships they were cultivating.