I’ve seen a lot of films about marriage, but Scenes from a Marriage may be the best. Written and directed by the late Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, the 1973 drama is filmed on sets less sophisticated than most sitcoms, with camerawork equally simple, but in its writing and acting it is more passionate, more scorching, and more intimate than any film of its kind I can think of. It presents the dissolution of a marriage as only the beginning of a love story built on pain, lust, cruelty, anger, and affection...
I’ve seen a lot of films about marriage, but Scenes from a Marriage may be the best. Written and directed by the late Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, the 1973 drama is filmed on sets less sophisticated than most sitcoms, with camerawork equally simple, but in its writing and acting it is more passionate, more scorching, and more intimate than any film of its kind I can think of. It presents the dissolution of a marriage as only the beginning of a love story built on pain, lust, cruelty, anger, and affection so inextricably mixed that some scenes develop from screaming to sex and back again in a fluid motion. It’s a masterpiece.
The film began its life as a five-hour miniseries for Swedish television and was cut by Bergman into a theatrical version a full two hours shorter. According to Bergman historian Peter Cowie, who on the DVD discusses both versions, some characters were excised entirely to narrow the story’s focus to the husband and wife, including the couple’s children and the wife’s mother. Does the film suffer from losing the footage? I couldn’t say. The three-hour feature version is seamless, a thorough and complete chamber play that puts us in closed spaces with the couple and holds us in its thrall as their relationship evolves. If the full miniseries offers even greater detail, I’m eager to see it. It is also available on DVD.
Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) are the couple. When we first meet them, they are interviewed for a magazine article about their relationship and seem placidly content, though detached. Neither of them is really happy, but each is faking it for the other — going along to get along — and that has created a distance between them that they fill with complacent reassurances of how they speak the same emotional language and are financially secure. That is what makes for a happy marriage, they assert, trying to convince themselves as well as each other. They’ve been married for ten years, and it seems they’ve spent most of their years this way. It isn’t until a seismic dinner party early in the film that they are forced to face their marital woes.
That dinner scene unfolds with extraordinary gradualness. It is at first perfectly genial when Marianne and Johan host their married friends Peter (Jan Malmsjö) and Katarina (Bibi Andersson), who are having problems of their own that become clearer the more they drink. Peter and Katarina gently tease each other in a passive-aggressive manner that attempts to veil deep resentments with humor, until all of a sudden it isn’t funny anymore. Civility breaks down, and before long they sit across from each other and engage in verbal combat of shocking emotional violence, with Marianne and Johan there as an unwilling audience. The writing and acting of this confrontation are savagely direct; they tear each other down with the precision of people so intimately connected that they can gouge the most sensitive spots. I am reminded, perhaps strangely, of a song by Fiona Apple that succinctly describes just such a union: “Conversation, once colored by esteem, became dialogue as a diagram of a play for blood.” The song is titled “Not About Love,” but of course it is about love.
There but for the grace of god go we, Marianne and Johan express to each other after the dinner party, trying even harder to convince themselves and each other. But small truths start to creep to the surface. Johan is an associate professor and asks a colleague for her opinion of poems he has written. She asks why he did not ask his wife to critique them, and he is forced to consider the answer. Marianne is an attorney specializing in family law, and when a prospective client tells her about the numbness of her marriage the camera swings to capture Marianne’s troubled expression, as if hidden feelings have just exploded into her consciousness.
The relationship reaches a crossroads in the third of the film’s six segments, entitled “Paula,” in which Johan informs Marianne that he is leaving her for the titular woman. It presents a tricky challenge for the actors, who are not made to scream at each other in predictable fashion but rather undergo a nuanced process of emotions. At times the shock is so severe that all Marianne can do is revert to old patterns, discussing trivialities like who will pick up the dry cleaning in between fits of anger and despair.
It only gets better from there. What is most remarkable about Scenes from a Marriage is how Johan and Marianne develop as individuals and consequently as a couple. In the second half, the carefully preserved pleasantness of their union has disintegrated into raw nerves, bitter grievances, individual liberation, and finally a deeper understanding of themselves and each other, expressed in lengthy duologues that hurtle messily through feelings so intense the characters can scarcely withstand them. Marianne and Johan have spent so long keeping up appearances that the sudden glare of looking inward is blinding. We’re witnessing the growing pains of nascent self-revelation.
Enough can’t be said about the performances of Ullman and Josephson, and yet where do I begin? They are as crucial to the film’s success as Bergman’s direction and screenplay, because there’s nothing between us and them, no exertions of style, photography, or music, and through treacherous emotional waters they never hit a false note.
They battle, they make love, they commiserate, they cause each other pain. Whether Marianne and Johan end up together in a conventional sense is irrelevant. They are connected by a bond much deeper than a marriage contract, and more lasting. The very last line of the film is just right. It’s one of the film’s simplest pieces of dialogue and would not be so profound were it not for all that came before. What a remarkable romance this is, with as clear an idea of love as I’ve encountered in the medium of fiction.