Scenes from a Marriage

It’s fairly easy to catch up on classic or acclaimed directors like Kubrick and Tarkovsky, because they didn’t make all that many films. But Ingmar Bergman is one of those directors who has churned out so many films over the years — many of them classics in their own right — that you could attend multiple festivals or retrospectives devoted to him and still miss some of his essential works.

The Pacific Cinematheque has hosted at least two major Bergman series since I began attending regularly over a decade ago, the most recent of which was earlier this year, right around the time I was getting married. I managed to catch a few films that I had missed on previous occasions, but one film that I missed once again was the six-part mini-series Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Given that I was just about to get married myself — and given that I had a busy schedule and enough things to stress over as it was, without adding five hours of Swedish existentialism to the mix — I figured I could justify passing on this particular film again.

But now, this week, I had no excuse. Next week, the Cinematheque will be hosting the Vancouver premiere of Saraband (2003), which is a sequel to Scenes from a Marriage — and in anticipation of that premiere, they brought back the original film. And since I want to see the sequel, I obviously had to see the original.

The first thing that struck me about this film was the playfulness of the opening scene, as Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) are photographed and interviewed for a woman’s magazine on the occasion of their 10th anniversary. Playfulness is not a quality I ordinarily associate with Bergman. But it becomes pretty clear, early on, that this is Bergman’s way of setting up one of the film’s recurring themes, which is that it is the social expectations of others, and not necessarily any sort of inner goodness or spiritual strength, that keeps marriages together.

While Johan is out of the room, the female journalist asks Marianne to define “love”, and Marianne hesitantly says something to the effect that I Corinthians 13 offers a good definition, but it casts human beings in such a “harsh light” because very few of us can live up to its ideals. This sets the stage for the film’s frequent references to the “guilt” that Marianne and Johan feel over their mercurial relationship; a scripture passage that many people have found moving, transforming and liberating represents, in this film, just one more thing for people to feel judged by.

At the very end of the film, in the very last scene, Johan tries to assure Marianne: “We love each other in an earthly and imperfect way.” It is not clear whether he really believes this, or whether he is being calming and soothing just for the sake of it, as he has been before; but, given the many infidelities and betrayals that have taken place over the course of this film — indeed, this very scene takes place years after Johan and Marianne have divorced, when they are cheating on their new spouses with each other — I don’t think it would be entirely off-base to read this line as a sort of justification for the characters’ behaviour, especially since it comes from the character who gave up on the marriage first. God is dead, and perfection is impossible, so why even bother.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself. It is also interesting to see how, in that first scene, Marianne tells the interviewer that she doesn’t want to think of love as an “obligation” or a “rule” — she just loves her husband because she does right now, but she can’t predict how she will feel tomorrow or the next day — and then to see how devastated Marianne is when, in the third episode, Johan comes to their cottage early just to tell her that he’s leaving her.

Good heavens, is that episode devastating. For me, the prolonged late-night argument between Johan and Marianne brought to mind a number of uncomfortable occasions in my own life when I’ve stayed up late either arguing with my own friends or family or trying to mediate the arguments of others, especially in the way things seem to simmer down before they suddenly flare up again and keep right on going; you know these characters just want to go to bed, possibly in the hope that they’ll find out the storm has passed and everything is back to normal when they wake up, and yet you know that things are being said and done that will not be easily forgotten, or forgiven. And I felt real pity for Marianne when she tries to support her husband even as he abandons her, telling him he should wear certain clothes when he goes away with his mistress because they make him look more “youthful”.

The references to women’s liberation are certainly interesting, and give the film a bit of a time-capsule feel. So is the film’s implicit message that marriage is an outmoded, bourgeois social norm, supported only by material success and the expectations of others, and that relationships can actually become better once they are set free from such conventions; sure, there are all sorts of painful arguments, and there is even a bit of physical abuse, as Marianne and Johan negotiate their way from conventional marriage to some sort of post-marital state, but it seems we are supposed to think they become a better, more honest couple once they are cheating on their new spouses with each other than they were when they were actually married to one another.

This impression is reinforced by the dramatic structure of the film, which consists almost entirely of scenes featuring just these two characters. There are a few supporting characters in the first and last episodes, and the characters frequently refer to their daughters and other partners, etc.; but the film’s attention, as a whole, stays absolutely fixed on these two people. The film is invested in them, and thus so are we; and so we want to think that their affair in the final episode is a good thing, even though, if we were one of the spouses that they are now cheating on, we would probably think the affair was a bad thing. It is kind of like how You’ve Got Mail, Next Stop Wonderland and similar romantic comedies have conditioned us to accept that the stars of the film must get together, and therefore the people they are with at the beginning of the film must be dumped somewhere along the way, simply because the form of these films demands that certain characters must get together and stay together.

I am not saying that Bergman believes these two characters are “destined” to be together, or anything so trite as that. But I do think his nearly exclusive focus on them prejudices our response to them; we are almost never allowed even a glimpse into the lives of their other partners or other spouses, and so we don’t particularly care about those people. We are missing the broader context in which the relationship of Johan and Marianne is being played out. It’s a little like watching The Decline of the American Empire or its sequel, but without the sense of community that those characters inhabit — a sense of community that prevents us from taking any one character’s side without reservation.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see if Saraband adheres to this formula, or, if not, how the change affects our response to the characters — or, for that matter, how the change reflects the characters’ changing understanding of themselves.

Oh, and FWIW, I think I got a lot more out of this film by waiting to see it until after I was married than I would have before.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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