First published on Little White Lies (3rd February 2012) //
Originally conceived of as a mini-series in his native Sweden, Ingmar Bergman’s film (or more accurately the shovel with which he digs a grave for marriage) originally aired to universal acclaim in 1973. The theatrical version, and the one you’d probably find on DVD, is a cut that shaved off some 130 minutes, yet left intact all of its spiky trauma.
Scenes from a Marriage is a simple film on the surface, divided into chapters, the separate episodes of its original broadcast, some of which were viewed by an audience of 3.5 million, roughly half the country’s population. Bergman, himself an accomplice in five marriages and four divorces, explores here his extensive experience living with, and for, and under, another. And the response to his agonisingly real drama was significant. The aftermath of its transmission would see its creator accosted in the street and begged for marriage advice. Reports showed divorces soaring, and counsellors being sought in huge numbers.
It is easy to understand such a reaction. His film presents us initially with a severely smug ‘happy’ couple, a pair of “emotional illiterates,” Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), as they are interviewed for an article seemingly about their marriage. They sit on an ivy heirloom couch as they list the many reasons for their infinite happiness, the happiness which is a mechanical kickback to their stale, pragmatic approach to life and relationships.
Yet a modern audience is familiar, even expectant, of the problems that could befall this couple. During their conversation of furtive smiles and nervous shifting, before a snapping camera and jejune reporter, there is the feeling that anything could tip the balance.
In their interview they reveal it was not “love at first sight”; they worked at it, like working at a potentially lucrative business partnership. The pair often speak of marriage in terms of a “contract,” one which should be regularly reviewed like any other. And by setting this framework of behaviour, Bergman unpicks the fanciful notion, in practical terms, of love in a marriage where complacency and comfort are prerequisites for it ever blossoming in the first place, either truly or fallaciously.
The subsequent breakdown that Bergman shows us is as much the result of an external effect as an internal one. Marianne and Johan are born into parochial positions which they cannot escape, a situation that produces the self-loathing they later project and inflict on each other. It is not only each other they have to endure: they must celebrate every occasion, needing to appease their parents every weekend of their lives. They are always living for the other, and this they find strangulating. They need both to breathe and be allowed to think ‘living for the other’ is a choice they have made, not a necessity.
When they eventually separate from each other, or at least think they do, they fall again into the same trap with new lovers, thus repeating the cycle. “How I battle with futility,” Johan says. There seems to be no escape.
Building the chapel of painful memories to mourn for their lives (yet who could help but feel warmed by the idea of “beer and sandwiches” with their beautiful wife?) we recognise in their story the inconstant torment and isolation of our existence.
In a key, entrancing scene, Johan returns to Marianne, both their lovers away, one of them more desperate than the other. As the doorbell rings, she checks her hair, yet she is the one with the advantage. Johan fumbles and forces himself upon her. She mentions her journal, the breakthroughs of self-knowledge she has managed away from him. He urges her to read, with false interest, perhaps glimpsing another opportunity to gratify his sexual urges (he even tries one more time). But Marianne is excited, vulnerable, and desperate herself, to reveal things long hidden in her. “Take an interest in my soul, instead,” she says. He ignores, she resists, but eventually Johan retreats to their heirloom couch.
As she reads, it is as if we are hearing the words of two, Marianne and Bergman himself. “I turned and looked at the photo of my class at school,” she says.
We are shown still snapshots of Marianne as a girl, first, of her lined up amongst classmates, then, as she explains how she has been constantly oppressed by functionality, the grey machinery of family life, leading her to implosion, she reveals: “I seemed to detect something that had eluded me previously. To my surprise I must admit: I don’t know myself. Not at all. I’ve always done as I was told.”
In this, it seems it is not so much marriage but convention that Bergman is angling toward, the living of lives for another’s idea of happiness, another’s image of conventional contentedness. This is what breaks Marianne down, forcing her into corners, “Being deceitful and secretive became second nature to me,” she admits. This openness allows us to understand better the guilt sent back and forth between the couple, and also Bergman’s condemnation of a system that breeds it. The photographs become haunting and dead. Then in a heartbreaking reveal that makes this scene one of the film’s most affecting, Bergman’s camera pans to a now-sleeping Johan.
This slideshow is the only breakaway from the film’s straightforward documentary approach. Perhaps this is what sets Scenes from a Marriage apart from Bergman’s other films, visually at least. Dispensed with is the careful imagery usually found in cinematographer Sven Nyqvist’s work. Instead, the aim is frugal directness; images that frame and entrap the familiar yet nightmarish domesticity of their subjects.
We see through the bars to these tamed, suburban animals, smiling behind their bay windows. And this film, like Marianne’s revelation, is “just a taste of the marvellous things life has to offer.”