Review Of Scenes From A Marriage

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/31/06


  Leo Tolstoy once opined that all happy families are happy in but a few ways, while those that are not suffer in many unique ways. This apothegm was never more well evinced than in filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s five hour 1973 Swedish telefilm Scenes From A Marriage (Scener ur ett aktenskap), a miniseries that was even more influential in Europe than the American television miniseries Roots, which captivated American audiences only a few years later. Bergman’s miniseries was repackaged for foreign markets into a 169 minute film version that, in 1974, was almost universally lauded by critics in America. Although, because it started out as a tv show, it was ineligible for Oscar consideration in America, it did win the National Society Of Film Critics Award for Best Picture, and, in 1977, PBS aired the entire uncut series. In many ways, it had more in common with such offerings as the U.K.’s Up Series documentaries, or PBS’s An American Family, which chronicled the ups and downs of the real life Loud family. It was a film that also radically departed from many prior Bergmanian paradigms, even as it continued his in depth exploration of the interior human landscape.

  Gone was the poetic and dazzling cinematography of Sven Nykvist, as it was replaced by an even more obsessive look at the human mien, especially the gloriously radiant features of actress Liv Ullman’s face. Ullman portrays Marianne, the female lead of the series, a thirty-five year old liberal leaning divorce lawyer who is married to a more culturally conservative forty-two year old professor and researcher at the Psychotechnology Institute, as well as a wannabe poet named Johan, played by Erland Josephson. We never learn the couple’s surname, which only adds to their everycouple iconography, and the intimacy viewers feel with and for them. The couple’s two daughters, Eva and Karin, make only a brief appearance at the start of both versions, although they are mentioned a few times more in the series. As the film version opens, the couple is being interviewed by a female writer (Anita Wall) for a woman’s magazine, after ten years of marriage, and there are some awkward moments that belie the problems awaiting them just under the surface of their claims of being almost a too content couple. We are not sure whether this scene is the present- meaning 1973, or ten years earlier, for the series will progress over a decade. The tv version goes farther than the film version, and the first scene, or night’s viewing, is titled Innocence And Panic. We see more hostility bared- overtly and covertly, and find out the interviewer is a passive/aggressive old schoolmate of Marianne’s whom she is not too fond of. As Marianne leaves Johan alone with the interviewer, he admits that all is not as placid as it seems, and that he is still very close with his parents. After he goes to make a phone call, Marianne returns, and is grilled intensely by the interviewer, and shrinks at the personal and sexual nature of her queries. She also says that Johan is ‘slow to anger’, which is something the rest of the series will show as part of both of their personal and mutual problems. The sequence ends with revelations that it was prior miserable relationships that brought them together, and, especially in the tv version, it becomes apparent that the two like to zing each other with putdowns of their former lovers- in his case a vapid pop singer, and in hers a first husband, a miscarriage, and a divorce. We do get a greater sense, though, in the longer version, that Marianne is both a perfectionist and control freak, and that this is the underlying weakness that dooms her marriage. Only in the final episode of the series will we get a clue as to why Marianne is so overcompensating in her marriage.

  Then we get a scene where the couple is hosting a dinner for their friends Peter and Katarina (Jan Malsmjö and Bibi Andersson), wealthy industrialists who are in a horrible marriage, and openly resent each other. As they get drunker the night turns into a contest of filial barbs. Peter is lulled by a game of chess with Johan while Katarina attacks his manhood, as he tunes out. They end up raging and leaving. The tv version goes into greater detail of what ails their marriage, which is open, as Katarina admits to having had a lover named Jan, who dumped her, when she and Marianne retreat to the bathroom to girl talk. There, we find out that she loathes and loves Peter, and that he is impotent with any other woman but her. Although she claims to be the victim of Peter’s puerile desires, we see, by the end of the night, that it is really Katarina who is the spiteful and bitter one, publicly ridiculing Peter’s impotence as he tunes out. After the couple leaves, Johan and Marianne discuss their own marriage and their friends’. Bergman later made a sequel out of the Katarina and Peter characters- From The Life Of The Marionettes, and there’s little wonder why, for their lives, even in their lone appearance in this film, seem to be much more fascinating. Bibi Andersson is brilliant in her role, and really outshines Ullman in every way. She has more outer range as an actress, as well as more internal landscapes to plumb. Whereas Ullman’s stock in trade is the lighter side of human nature, Andersson can go places where Ullman could never emotionally trod. The tv version does open up some avenues of insight the film version does not, but most of this episode’s power remains in the film version, save for a key scene, at the end of the first episode, where Marianne announces she is pregnant, one night in bed. Johan equivocates emotionally, and Marianne is even more perplexed, but finally she decides to have an abortion, and the scene ends with her regretting it. This may be the only dramatic misstep in this episode, for it perpetuates the erroneous perception that Right Wing mullahs put forth, that abortion devastates women, even a committed Left Winger like Marianne. While it dampens the believability of the tv version it does add, however, to the viewer’s understanding of resentments that are festering in the couple’s marriage, as well as their mutual desire to avoid speaking more deeply on personal matters. The whole abortion sequence is gone in the film version, and this microscopes that version more intensely on the two individuals, rather than extraneous matters, to the point that the two films really have to be seen as separate entities with doppelgangers in similar, but not the same, situations. I prefer the longer version, for it contextualizes things more, but both are brilliant in slightly different ways.

  The second scene/episode is The Art Of Sweeping Things Under The Rug, and in the tv version it is ten minutes shorter than the other episodes, about forty-one minutes in length. There are three major ‘set pieces’ in this episode, and in both versions. First is Marianne’s attempt to break free of her mother, by canceling an obligatory Sunday dinner with her and her father. She fails, and reverts to little girl mode. A hint of foreshadowing may be involved, because, in both versions, after Marianne has made her call, Johan picks up the phone to make a call, then relents. Is he calling a lover, or calling to cancel dinner himself? We are never told. It is one of dozens of loose threads Bergman never ties in his attempt to inject realism into the film. The second set piece involves a female colleague of Johan’s, named Eva (Gunnel Lindblom), who clearly has had the hots for him since college. She laments his lost potential for greatness, and diplomatically tries to tell him she did not think the poems he let her read were any good. This devastates Johan’s ego, but he makes the best of it, even knowing that he has been reduced in the eyes of a woman whose opinion he values. She wonders why he never showed the poems to Marianne, and strikes a nerve. Her husband is out of town, and by the end of their passage she make sit clear that if things ever go wrong with Johan and Marianne, she’ll be eager to step in. It seems that she, along with Johan’s mother- in a phone call that starts the sequence, as well as Peter and Katarina, and the women’s magazine reporter, all sense what the couple refuses to see- that theirs is a failing union. The third sequence involves Marianne interviewing an older woman, named Mrs. Jacobi (Barbro Hiort af Ornäs), who seeks a divorce after twenty years of a loveless marriage. She claims that she’s never loved her husband nor her children, and that this lack of love has made her a living wraith, unable to truly feel things in the real world. Marianne does not see that this woman is an older version of herself, yet her assessment of the woman as somewhat spoiled and selfish is dead on. The same could apply to herself and Johan, yet the film pinpoints their bad sex life, from the time of their second child, as the culprit. The tv series also adds a scene at a restaurant where Marianne wants to get away and travel the world, but Johan dismisses her ideas, and she puts away the travel brochures, for he fears his life’s safety. There is also a discussion of ‘Women’s Lib, and Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, an obvious forebear to this film. Johan laments that neither he nor his wife give nor get enough affection when they make weak attempts at restarting their sex life, and when he grabs her breast, she pulls away.

  Perhaps the weakest aspect of the film and tv versions is that it focuses too much on the lives of wealthy and privileged folks. His characters are always much smarter and self aware than real people, thus more dour at life’s hardships, especially when caused by themselves. Early on, Johan even admits that their lives would be far more difficult were they both blue collar folk, dealing with greater financial pressures. This is one of the few times that Bergman actually lets reality intrude on the couple’s hermetically sealed world of privilege. In a sense, there would have been far more daring and radical had the film focused on a couple that weathered the real storms of marriage and made it, rather than a couple that was spoiled and caused their own problems where none needed to exist. Then again, Bergman, like William Shakespeare, is a craftsman more of melodrama- albeit of the absolute highest order, than real drama, and that has its own histrionic requisites.

  The third episode or scene, titled Paula, although the titular character never appears in the episode, nor longer film, begins with Johan’s return to announce his intention to leave Marianne and the kids for a twenty-three year old unstable girl and co-worker who wants to be a Slavic language teacher. He admits it’s very hackneyed, but finally allows some real rage loose, and claims that he’s actually enjoying playing the cad for a change. He even was keeping photos of his lover in his wallet for Marianne to find out if she dared look. Much of the tv version remains in the film version, save for some added moments, as the couple’s housekeeper knowing of his affair. Some critics have commented on the passivity and submissiveness that Marianne shows, but that seems quite plausible to me. A couple as emotionally castrated as they are will not have violence or accusations oozing at every moment. What does seem a stretch is how she offers to do things for him, and even her civility, in offering to help Johan leave the next morning. After such a betrayal this seems a stretch, but it could be she so desperately wants things to work out, and senses his fragility in wanting to simply ‘dematerialize’ that she dares not release her rage, as well. However, while the film version clearly paints Johan in a negative light, the tv version gives a greater degree of support to some of the things he says, even the crueler remarks. This is key, for some of Josephson’s best moments are in this episode. While Ullman got universal raves, in both versions, for her portrayal, the praise accorded Josephson was far more restrained. This seems wrong to me, as Ullman has the far more emotionally showy, and Hollywoodian melodramatic role, and she seems to be stretching herself far less than Josephson as an actor. Anyone familiar with Ullman’s portrayals in other films, especially those of Bergman, will see that Marianne has very many of the same traits as her other characters- she is soft, feminine, prone to emotionalism and secrecy, and does not really know herself. Josephson, on the other hand, crafts a unique character that puts to rest the lie, propagated by François Truffaut, that Bergman was incapable of creating three dimensional male characters. His is the far richer and more complex character, and he is often forced to act with just his eyes, not his whole body. This is not to denigrate nor deny Ullman’s performance, because it is superb. I am just stating that Josephson’s role was the more difficult, he mastered it, and deserved equal or greater kudos than Ullman received for her acting, even considering the superb ending of this scene, where Marianne calls a family friend, then realizes he and his wife knew of Johan’s infidelity, as well as several other people. The camera gets so close to Ullman’s face that almost all of her pores and fears are exposed, and she recoils in horror over her folly and the sham of a life she’s led. She feels shame and despair, then mutes it with a scream into a pillow.

  The fourth scene, The Vale Of Tears, in the film version, deals with a reunion of the couple, where they have come to terms with their separation, as they await a divorce. Still, Johan is tiring of his younger lover, and seeks to sleep with Marianne, while Paula is away in London. The highlight of this scene is a devastating reading of Marianne’s diary to Johan, who falls asleep, as great a symbol as Bergman has ever employed in his films. It is highly reminiscent of the scene from his earlier Winter Light, where a character played by Ingrid Thulin, reads a letter she wrote to her lover, a minister. For about six minutes, all we see is Thulin’s face reciting the words the pastor reads, Here, we get a similar digression, as Marianne reads her diary, after admitting she took the shrink who encouraged her to write it as a lover, and we see photographs of a young Ullman, as Marianne. It has a haunting effect, as Marianne lays bare her life of constantly being in service to others- her mother, her first husband, Johan, her daughters, and her desire to accept and change. She consigns herself to the role of coward, for becoming a serial pleaser. This passage also reminds me of the final scene in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, where a demented young woman, played by Catherine Deneuve, breaks down, kills two men, and the final image we have is of her, as a girl, staring off into the distance, while other members of her clan look directly at the camera. While Marianne is manifestly not as deluded as that character, we do, via her photos, get a sense of why she is why she is, and all of her feelings of insecurity.

  The TV version has a few added scenes, such as Johan and Marianne eating, and him complaining of his and Paula’s shit little concrete apartment, as well as Johan declaiming their marriage was too dependent on material things, and that was its weakness. The longer version gives depth to Johan the film version does not, and is a more balanced rendering of the failed marriage than the shorter version, which clearly sides with Marianne. She realizes, however, that she may only be able to love one man in her life, and that’s Johan. During the scenes of her reading her diary, we get extended shots of Johan as a youth, and more on her relationship with her demanding mother, who punished her differences. She also speaks of a brief turn to religion, and their being too dependent on their families. The biggest excision is a telephone call Marianne gets from her lover David. His first call ends with her still wanting to please him, but when he calls a second time, and she wants to sleep with Johan, she brusquely dumps him. The scene ends with a long look by Ullman straight at the camera, as the film reaches its midpoint.

  The fifth and penultimate scene in the film is called The Illiterates, and the whole scene takes place at Johan’s office, about three years after the first scene. While there are some predictable moments, such as Johan’s disgust with Paula, and desire to reconcile with Marianne, the scene works well, as they have sex, and spew their venom at each other, after it all starts out as a very genial and orderly. Marianne is now in the position of the destroyer, whereas Johan had been that, when he left her. Now it is Marianne who wants to kill off their marriage, and does so, as Johan capitulates, after a bout of physical violence, and signs the divorce papers. The TV version adds a rant by Johan on Academia and the Leftist ideology that is dooming his career. He also admits he suspects Paula is cheating on him. There is a good scene in both versions, where Johan admits he grew to loathe her, and how she would douche out his semen after sex. Marianne also admits that her current lover predicted she would have sex with Johan.

  The final scene, in both versions, is called In The Middle Of The Night In A Dark House Somewhere In The World, and it is a great ending to the film. Ten years after the initial episode, and seven years after episode five, both Johan and Marianne are remarried to spouses who are out of the country, and they return to their old country home for an assignation. She is married to an unfaithful man, Henrik, and he to an emotionally unfulfilled woman. In a sense, they have remarried newer versions of their earlier selves, and are still too immature enough to realize it. The film ends with a Freudian dream Marianne has of not having hands and not being able to touch Johan or her girls. They end up comforting each other and falling asleep.

  The TV version has several big differences. The first is an opening scene of Marianne visiting her mother, after her dad has died and been cremated. There, she grills her mom on her life with her father, their sex life, and why she felt her mother sided with Johan in the divorce. Her mother denies siding with Johan, and admits that her father cheated, but one senses that Marianne’s mother is what Mrs. Jacobi would have been had she not ended her own dead marriage years earlier. Her mother states that when Marianne’s father died he not only took his life with him, but hers as well. Another important cut is of Johan at his office, again visited by Gunnel Lindblom’s Eva. It is now revealed that the two of them were an item, but are over. She suspects he’s screwing his young secretary, without knowing he’s cheating on his wife Anna with Marianne. She then leaves, and a male co-worker drops by and bullshits for a few minutes. Then Eva returns, all the while Johan is trying to call Marianne to plan their weekend tryst. She and he spat harmlessly, and then the duo call and meet. We also see the duo looking back with more longing, and then we get perhaps the most relevant cut from the whole film, Marianne’s admission that she cheated first, before Johan did. She claims it was in their first year of marriage, 1955. This is the only point in the whole film that we get to ground the series, and that is absent from the film version. If Marianne cheated in 1955, then the film’s first episode is set in 1965, and the last episode in the then slight future of 1975. This means Marianne was born in 1930, and Johan in 1923. But, the fact that Marianne was unfaithful first explains why she is so overcompensating and smothering when the film begins, for she is still guilt-ridden, and this brief mention explains much of what we se fuels her marriage’s disintegration, in her reactions to it, and her husband’s counter-reactions to her reactions.

  This film, both versions, is both more accessible than Bergman’s other films and also more complex. It is less abstract and more direct, and this is what gives the film its power. The directness of the words Bergman employs is recapitulated in the focused, intimate close up shots of the participants’ faces by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, especially Ullman’s beautifully expressive and freckled face. There are only a few exterior shots in the whole film. In many ways, the film is both optimistic and pessimistic. Its pessimism is in the institution of marriage, which Johan, early on, says should have a five year limit, or be subject to renewal. When the film was made, Bergman was on his fifth and final marriage, one which lasted almost a quarter a century, until his wife Ingrid’s death. It is a writing tour de force, and dwarfs everything Bergman did before, in power and scope, and is the equal or superior to anything ever penned by dramatists like Ibsen, Shakespeare, or O’Neill. One could make a great argument for Bergman, even as a mere screenwriter, as the greatest published writer of the Twentieth Century. Its optimism comes through in its view that humans are fragile beings who, despite their flaws, can come to, at least, a detente with its miseries. This grudging admission is often missing in his other great films.

  The few problems with the films are minor, and revolve around the fact that, despite their emotional illiteracy, both of the parties, as well as the supporting cast of characters, are far more well spoken, intelligent, self-ware, and rational than average people. There is a sense of the whole marriage portrayed as being a giant lab experiment run by Bergman- ordered and regimented, with little hurdles tossed in just to watch the way the participants react. Despite its moments of seeming naturalism, and faux cinema verité style, there is always the aura of artifice over the films. Yet, that never abnegates the utter power of the pieces, and the magisterial writing, for even if the circumstances seem forced, at times, the emotions elicited always ring true, mostly because the sheer emotional density of the film exhausts the viewer as it does its participants that, by the end of either version you are as exhausted as they are, when they simply end the film by going to sleep.

  Despite a third of a century having passed, the film is still sadly relevant, despite some dated snide asides on ‘Women’s Lib’, and the like, as well as 1970s psychoanalytical clichés like Marianne’s being  too considerate as a reason their love died, or the very idea that divorce is a ‘taboo subject’. In the hands of a lesser writer these sorts of artifices would have fallen to cliché. Thankfully, Bergman is a master of both word and screen. But, critics have often severely misinterpreted the film, and still do, usually depicting it as charting Johan’s slide from self-confidence, at the start of the film, when being interviewed, to a man who is reduced to a sniveling wretch, while Marianne ameliorates from dependent and emotionally detached to a ‘liberated’ and self-satisfied woman. This is typical of people who just read and react to what others say without actually engaging the work of art before them. In the film, both characters end up as liars and cheats, and, in the final scene, we see it is Marianne who is still afflicted with doubts about life’s entropy and her ability to love and be loved that torment her even in sleep, and it is she who turns to Johan, who has learned to accept life. He says, ‘I think I love you in my imperfect and rather selfish way. And I think you love me in your stormy, emotional way. In fact, I think that you and I love one another. In an earthly and imperfect way.’ In the end, the only tangible difference between the two characters from where they opened the film is that they are no longer legally bound to each other.

  The DVD is in three disks, with the first and second containing the tv series, and the third the film version. Disk one has a 1986 interview with Bergman about the film. Disk two a twenty-five minute interview with Ullman and Josephson- including Ullmann’s regret she took a flat fee for the film, while Bergman, Josephson, and Nykvist took a percentage cut of the film and became millionaire, as the show Bergman’s greatest financial triumph. Disk three has British film scholar discoursing on the differences between the two versions. There are no trailers, and only subtitles, no English language dubbed track, unfortunately. The film was shot in 16mm, which gives a grainier look to the film than Bergman’s other films. It was shot with a television’s 1:1.33 aspect ratio in mind, and a deliberately muted color palette, which stands in sharp contrast to the heightened emotions of the piece. The insert booklet features an essay by Phillip Lopate.

  Many urban legends arose about the film, such as that, during its first broadcast, city streets in Scandinavia were deserted, as well as the divorce rate in Scandinavia rose within a few months. While none of this was true, Bergman, in his interview on disk one, and elsewhere, revels in repeating these claims as facts. The film also influenced many other films, most notably Woody Allen’s Husbands And Wives, two decades later, where Allen’s and Mia Farrow’s characters will only show their writings to other people. The shorter version of the film is more dense and harrowing, whereas the film version allows some dramatic pauses and humor. The tv version also has an added bonus of having Bergman first recap the tale at each episode’s start, as well as read the film’s credits at the end of each episode, while inviting viewers to look at scenes from Farö Island. This frames the whole series as a dramatic invention, not unlike some of the artifice aware films he did in the 1960s- most notably Persona.

  Yet, ultimately, Scenes From A Marriage is a great work of art, and one that will still have relevance as long as human beings involve themselves in mating rituals. While it details a marriage, that marriage fails not because of the husband’s midlife crisis, nor does it even fail because of the wife’s first infidelity and over-compensatory smothering, but because the two characters were simply ill suited for one another- personally, emotionally, politically, sexually, and philosophically. No matter how well they knew each other, and we know that they know each other all too well, basic incompatibility cannot be overcome. Thus the greatest lesson the film teaches is not how to act during marriage, but to choose well before entering into it, because that is the single most important choice a would be spouse can make, and gives rise to the maxim that Tolstoy spouted. Were that not so Scenes From A Marriage would not be as engrossing, insightful, and relevant a work of art as it still is, as it would be like so many other marriages and films in the real world- thriving on the low hum of ignorance that its participants and viewers enjoy.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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