A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972), in which I discussed Bergman's emphasis in that film on the family dynamics among the three sisters who are its main characters. Before the decade was over, Bergman would make two other films that, taken together with Cries and Whispers, form what could be considered a trilogy in which he examines how various members of the family relate to one other: Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Autumn Sonata (1978).
Whereas Cries and Whispers concentrated on sibling relations, Scenes from a Marriage deals, as the title indicates, with relations between husband and wife. Originally made as a six-hour long mini-series for Swedish television, it was later edited by Bergman into a 167-minute movie, the version I watched, and released in the US in 1974. (Because it was first shown on television, it was ruled ineligible for the Academy Awards.) The film opens with a scene that is ambiguous: A man and woman—clearly identifiable as Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, two actors who had appeared in a number of Bergman's films—are sitting on a sofa in what appears to be an upper middle-class living room being interviewed. At first it is uncertain whether they are characters in the movie or the actors who play them discussing their characters, as in Bergman's The Passion of Anna (1969).
Within a few minutes, though, it is clear that these actors were from the beginning in character. The couple being interviewed for a magazine profile are Marianne (Ullmann) and Johan (Josephson). She is a lawyer in her thirties; he is a university professor of experimental psychology in his forties. They have been married for ten years and have two daughters. The interview is in part a clever way of succinctly presenting the background of these people and sketching their personality traits (or as we later find out, the self-images they present to each other and the world) and the way they relate to each other. Johan seems confident and more or less in control of the relationship, while she seems more reserved and behaves deferentially toward him. The image of their marriage they present to the interviewer is one of stability, of two complementary personalities who have achieved a relationship of contented equilibrium.
This scene is followed by a strangely contrasting one. Marianne and Johan are entertaining their friends Katarina (Bibi Andersson) and Peter (Jan Malmsjö), and all are seated at the table in the dining room. The profile of the couple has been published, and Johan reads it aloud, sarcastically ridiculing the idealized picture of the couple it presents, as Marianne smiles and nods in agreement. Yet what he reads accurately reflects the image they presented to the interviewer, and it is clear from their expressions that the couple are secretly pleased with the result.
This kind of irony—possible only with the most masterful actors, those capable of suggesting simultaneous contradictory emotions—hearkens back to Bergman's Persona (1966), with its theme that we all wear masks that conceal our inner selves and that in a sense we are all actors giving a performance for the world at large and for each other. In the dinner scene, taken in conjunction with the opening scene of the interview, Bergman implies that this is also true of married couples, as they present a united front to the world. And, as we will discover in the course of the movie, he further implies that this is true within the marriage itself, in the way the two people in a marriage tend to hold something of themselves back from each other.
The irony of the scene does not end here, though. Later in the meal it becomes apparent that the marriage of Katarina and Peter is in serious trouble, and as Marianne and Johan look on in obvious discomfort, their friends begin tearing into each other with an escalating viciousness reminiscent of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The subjects of contention are those typical of bourgeois marriages everywhere: fidelity, money, careers, goals that have begun to diverge, waning sexual interest in each other. The irony of the situation is that even though we won't learn it for a while, these are exactly the areas of dispute that will arise later when cracks begin to develop in Marianne and Johan's seemingly ideal marriage.
When Johan announces out of the blue that he has been having an affair with a graduate student he is advising (how many times have you heard of that situation?) and is leaving Marianne to take up a new teaching post in the US, their calcified marriage begins to crumble. The rest of the movie traces the evolution of relations between Marianne and Johan over the course of the next several years—from a bitter separation, trenchant post mortems about the reasons for the end of the marriage, divorce, the collapse of Johan's career plans, disputes over maintenance and child support, to the eventual remarriage of both. So chaotic is the trajectory of their relations that at one point while all this is happening, Johan asks aloud, "Are we living in utter confusion?"
The movie ends ten years after it began, in a sense coming full circle. Marianne and Johan, involved in unhappy marriages to others, are now secret lovers sneaking away for a tryst at the country vacation home where Johan first confessed his affair to Marianne and told her that their marriage was over. Earlier in the movie, Johan told Marianne that they were like children trying to make sense of the adult world. The intervening ten years since we were introduced to them in that gripping first scene have been difficult for both, but at the end of the movie they seem at last to have grown up.
Because it was originally made for television, Scenes from a Marriage uses the conventional TV aspect ratio of 1:33 : 1. Structured around six episodic "chapters," the movie consists largely of dialogue rather than action and is shot mostly in the talking-heads close-up style typical of the small screen. The strictures of this format had major effects on the movie. For one thing, they required Bergman to write a screenplay in which dialogue does practically everything—conveys information, illuminates character traits, and explains the progression of his main characters through the phases of the transformative changes they undergo. The dialogue must be clear, focused, naturalistic and literal. It must be an exact fit for both the characters and the actors who portray them. Bergman accomplishes this with absolute mastery.
The limitations imposed by this format also required Bergman to simplify his style. If the chief means of showing the nature of Marianne and Johan's relationship is through their conversations, then the visual novelty and stylistic flourishes we associate with Bergman's previous work would only be distractions. Bergman reduces his visual style to essentials, resulting in one of the most stylistically minimalist films he ever made. Yet the film is never boring, so strong are the writing and acting, and so unfailingly apposite are the choices Bergman makes from his relatively basic visual palette.
Because of the heavy reliance on dialogue and the extensive use of close-ups, the movie could only succeed if the actors playing Marianne and Johan convincingly merge with their characters. I am specifically referring to Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who appear in every scene, occasionally alone but almost always together. (Other actors in the cast appear in no more than one sequence.) These actors must carry a movie that even in its edited version runs nearly three hours, and they do so brilliantly, right from that opening interview sequence, which portends one of the greatest strengths of the movie: In the first couple of minutes we see the actors settle into their roles and become the characters, and they never let up for the remainder of the film.
This must have been especially challenging for Ullmann, who had played lead roles in five Bergman films in the previous seven years and was therefore quite recognizable to those familiar with the director's work. The role of Marianne was the most conventional character she had at the time played for Bergman—a contemporary professional, a complacent middle-class wife and mother untroubled by personal demons—yet she disappears into the role, carrying the viewer along with her on her unanticipated journey. As Marianne, she sees the world she blithely took for granted disintegrate and experiences the most intense and disturbing emotions of her life when she leaves behind the sheltered existence she led with Johan. After she learns to let go of her bitterness toward Johan and forgive him, she is able to become more confident, mature, and independent, and more open about her sexuality. She finds a real identity outside her marriage and emerges a stronger and more resilient woman.
Like Ullmann, Josephson had also appeared in several of Bergman's films, but in smaller and less prominent roles. Bergman had the rare knack of creating highly individualized female characters and placing them in stories in which they dominate the narrative and are the most memorable people in the movie, particularly in his later career, say from Persona (1966) on. Scenes from a Marriage, however, is essentially a two-character movie in which the main male and female characters are given equal weight. With so much responsibility for the success of the movie resting on his performance, Josephson clearly proves himself up to the challenge of sharing the screen with such a strong and distinctly defined presence as Ullmann's Marianne. Like her, Josephson's Johan is an utterly ordinary man, not the writer, musician, or painter who is so often the chief male character in Bergman's movies. And unlike the spiritual and artistic torments of those characters, Johan's problems and insecurities are the ordinary ones common to middle-class, middle-aged men everywhere.
A few years older than his wife, he has reached the point in his life at which he begins to question the worth of his accomplishments and to aspire to something more ambitious, something he believes will be more significant and satisfying. He sees the means of this personal and psychological fulfillment in career advancement and a renewed sex life with a younger wife. (Since the birth of their second daughter, his sex life with Marianne has been minimal.) That he is later unsuccessful in achieving these things eventually makes him question his decision to divorce Marianne and move on. Yet like Marianne, in spite of his confusion and suffering—or is it really because of it?—he seems by the end of the movie to have grown. Johan has lost much of his self-centered arrogance and discontent with the course of his life, becoming more humble and more accepting of the way his life has turned out.
Perhaps the most important change among all those they have undergone, though, is that both Marianne and Johan have adjusted their expectations about love to a more realistic level. "We love each other in an earthly, imperfect way," Johan tells Marianne at the end of the film, and it is hard to find fault with that painfully acquired insight.
In 2003 Bergman, who died in 2007, made a movie for Swedish television (his last work) titled Saraband that involves Marianne visiting Johan at his country home some 30 years later. As in Scenes from a Marriage, Marianne and Johan are played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.