SWEDISH MASTERPIECES: Scenes from a Marriage (1973) – Bergman

The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, which
is often cited on this channel, and is bound to return frequently, is a staple in the art
of filmmaking and even those not acquainted with his films are aware of his reputation. Some of his films get featured regularly in
rankings and polls for the best films ever made and his name has become representative
of the towering prestige that comes with spotless, punishing and enduring film craft. Throughout his long career he’s attained
a prestige that few other directors could barely reach, and much less surpass, with
his most well-known films being perhaps “Wild Strawberries”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Persona”,
“Cries and Whispers”, “Scenes from a Marriage” and “Fanny and Alexander”. Eventually most if not all of these films,
as well as others like “The Virgin Spring”, “Through a Glass Darkly”, “Winter Light”,
“The Silence”, will have the chance of being presented in this channel to curious
viewers. This video however will focus on the theatrical
version of “Scenes From a Marriage” and will attempt to introduce spectators to its
style and themes in a way that will hopefully entice them to further explore the film and
the director’s career on their own. At its core, “Scenes from a Marriage”
is a most typical, classic Bergman there could ever be, with Strindbergian tones of gender
conflict and love-hate relationship ambiguities, but more precisely focused on a decaying relationship
that binds an initially apparently stable and contented adult couple, represented by
Liv Ullmann (as Marianne) and Erland Josephson (as Johan), two stellar actors that shine
consistently in many other Bergman films and which given their immense talent were both
naturally led towards the international market, the first one with roles in English, American
and Australian productions and developing later on an accomplished directorial career,
the latter with acting roles under brilliant directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Theodoros
Angelopoulos and István Szabó. In this 1973 film, originally shot as a TV
mini-series, a strong sense of stage direction for the actors is discernible, as the piece
itself is centred in varied, albeit spatially fixed episodes in which the performances take
the main spotlight, while the camera steps back and acts in a restrained and almost voyeuristic
manner. This unobtrusive and controlled approach to
the screen depiction, may seem like a surprise to people familiar with Sven Nykvist’s more
encompassing and open photographic iterations from the early 60’s, but will certainly
appear as a natural progression especially if one considers such movies from the latter
half of the decade, as “Persona” or “Hour of the Wolf”, which already featured a slight
proclivity for long takes and narrow framing, tying bodies and faces, knit closely together
and resulting in the placement of the spectator in heightened and uncomfortable proximity. While it’s certainly disquieting to be so
near these clashing characters at the brink of disintegration, there’s an unending and
downright captivating sense of naked, genuine immediacy, perhaps also because the subject
is so universally relatable. Given Bergman’s understanding of the complexity
of human psyche and the inevitable confrontational nature of personalities stringed narrowly
together, especially when submitted to the emotional dependency and expectations of a
couple under marital contract, the stage is set for a remarkable and unflinching depiction
of conjugal life. Even without the hints one would get from
a thorough knowledge of Bergman’s filmography, right from the start there’s a disquieting
sense of uneasiness that quietly whispers to the spectator that this is no Nicholas
Sparks melodrama one is about to witness. Have a look at the interview that opens the
film, with apparently light-hearted banter and covert teasing thrown around between husband
and wife, which sprouts among the more evident disparate character of both, the former revealing
his confident and self-assured attitude peppered with unpleasant condescension, while the latter
displays a more charitable and meek, albeit not really indifferent, disposition. On Strindberg’s “By the Open Sea”, there
are two passages that could perhaps fit into Johan and Marianne’s mindset and exemplify
the struggle between disparate dispositions that could have been the source that cracked
the seemingly stable relationship. Given his prideful nature, it is possible
then that Johan unfortunately “had realised that, unless he abandoned resistance and surrendered
completely, her personality could only be soldered to his, not fused”, something which
was definitely out of the question. In regards to Marianne however, given her
intelligence, she might have bore in mind their present state from the perspective that
“as love was a matter of mutual deception, why not let yourself be deceived? Nothing for nothing! And, as perfect happiness did not exist, why
not content yourself with imperfect?” This seemingly unbalanced power struggle will
amusingly face a reversal on later stages, after going through periods of openness and
potential reconnection, disappointing divergency, apparent understanding and definitive rupture,
not unlike a chemical reaction of active broken symmetry. Additionally, the sequence that immediately
follows the opening, also foreshadows upcoming marital struggles, as a harmless dinner hosting
and meeting at the couple’s house grows progressively decadent, and goes beyond Johan
and Marianne’s control, as the guests fall into a spiral of initially playful and sarcastic
comments, developing into violently sardonic tirades which fail to hide the ingrained deep
scorn and hatred, resulting in one of the most fascinating yet visceral, unsavoury and
brutal arguments ever depicted on screen. To think that all of this happens within the
first 20 minutes of an almost 3-hour film might put some Bergman novices off, but let
yourself not get discombobulated, as there’s a wondrous tale of emotional fragmentation,
and a kind of rollercoaster at it, to be told with bare honesty and astonishing finesse
that has marked not only a generation of filmmakers like Woody Allen and Richard Linklater, but
common people too. Indeed, a curious fact about “Scenes from
a Marriage” is the controversy around the time of its release, as the film was accused
of being responsible for an increase in divorces all around Europe and particularly in Sweden,
where the rate allegedly had doubled one year after it premiered. Despite this, in Sweden, many articles with
constructive criticism on marriage were published on newspapers and magazines, and headlines
such “Johan and Marianne save hundreds of marriages” started appearing in many outlets. At the time, it was acknowledged that there
was a considerable increase in couple therapy bookings, resulting in heavy waiting lines
like it hadn’t been seen before, for according to Expressen “Husbands and wives have realized
that their marriages are failing after watching Johan and Marianne’s problems. They want help to solve their complicated
lives”. While it may seem hard to believe a film could
have such a cultural impact on a nation, the fact is that during its peak, the television
series were being watched by half of Sweden’s population, with an average episode viewership
of 38%. Adding to that the vivid atmosphere of the
70’s in regards to liberation from the shackles of dusty puritanism and outdated societal
models and the picture starts to become more believable. Hence, one may then look at “Scenes from
a Marriage”, not just as a brilliant psychological dissection of the “marriage condition”
so to speak, but as a much broader and important cultural artwork of definitive relevance. Kierkegaard’s “Reflections on Marriage”,
despite its typical theological incursions and occasional protracted theories on the
positive influence of religion in worldly and emotional matters, may provide an interesting
literary complement to “Scenes from a Marriage” and on his first pages he already asserts
what could perhaps be the reason for the downfall depicted on screen, when he declares that
“if you erase the element of love” (something which in fact seemed to be absent from Johan’s
mind from an early stage) “the life in common becomes, either the pure and simple satisfaction
of sexual appetite, or an association, a partnership to reach a certain goal”. Given that albeit an educated, middle-class,
family man, Johan’s goals haven’t been reached and since they’re unrelated to Marianne
personally anyway, his outlook and status on his marriage is bound to wither and suffer. Kierkegaard develops later on, another thought
that could be useful for interpreting Johan and Marianne’s situation: “The conjugal
life must not be a comfortable laying down in bed nor a corset that would constrain movement;
it shouldn’t be a task that requires laborious preliminary work; neither should it be a solvent
well-being, it should have the mark of unpredictability but also letting one’s guess of acting of
a secret art; it’s not about tiring the eyes, counting each day and night the stitches
on the living room carpet, but to observe in a small hint of attention, a modest sign
of mystery. (…) It’s about shedding off routine as
much as possible, the moment when repetition starts to appear; if that’s not completely
possible, variation must be introduced within. (…) We must defend ourselves from satiety,
from ennui”. It appears then, given the aptness of the
description, that Johan and Marianne have fallen into the trap of routine and because
they haven’t made an effort to escape it, as they even dispassionately discuss their
lack of sensual passion or desire for each other at one point, this has taken a toll
on their relationship and left them somewhat estranged in a station which is fruitful breeding
ground for bitterness, disenchantment and frustration, particularly for the colder and
more insecure element of the relation, Johan. While it’s fair to recognize Bergman as
the maestro and main composer of this towering piece of filmmaking, one should not disregard
other key subjects that have played a very important role as well. Sven Nykvist’s photography has been superficially
mentioned earlier, in regards for example to his approach to portraiture, but another
particularly valuable aspect is the use of long-takes that glue the spectator not only
to the temporal reality of the events portrayed, but also serve to highlight Liv Ullman’s
and Erland Josephson’s incredible performances and shimmering organic interaction, with Bergman
himself saying later on that, “any director that gets to work with such actors is a lucky
man”, for both were not only utterly gifted actors themselves, but also contributed immensely
from a creative standpoint and in regards to the psychological interpretation, as well
as providing suggestions for their characters’ personalities. Ullman excels at portraying a gentle, smart
and understanding wife, even if not remaining absolutely passive and holding a secret on
top of it, recognizing her own faults as a woman or human being, traits that will work
successfully later on to help her cope with the marriage dissolution and help her emancipate
and define herself as an independent and focused entity, emerging from the prison of illusory
happiness and blind trust in which she delved unworriedly, while prevailing noble even under
misunderstanding and violent circumstances, avoiding vengeful demeanour or retribution
by the same means, once freed. Both her heart-wrenching reaction to the shocking
betrayal and abandonment, and her subsequent metamorphosis, are sure to act as pungent
and inspiring episodes for both men and women who’ve suffered at the hands of egotistical
and narcissistic individuals who’ve put their interests above everyone else’s emotional
expectations. On the other hand, Josephson also puts on
an acting masterclass as a somewhat arrogant, deceitful and selfish, but not overtly mean
person, and revealing himself as sensitive on occasion too. He may be wrong in some of his actions, and
eventually acknowledges so, but he comes across as an intelligent yet flawed human (just like
Marianne), that succumbs to the passions and self-interest, not out of sheer evil, but
as a result of his unfulfilled dreams and his own confused perception of himself and
the world, as proven by his own inability to reason his actions. He is certainly not an immoral and sinful
archetype, but more of a representation of common traits found in many individuals, in
a sense that he recognizes good and evil, virtue and wrongdoing, innocence and guilt,
but ultimately capitulates and follows the instincts of the beastly remnants on the human
soul that prevent him from seeing the “commune naufragium”, as Kierkegaard mentions too
in his aforementioned essay, that is sure to drag them both down. Other secondary actors might have brief appearances,
as the narrative is almost exclusively focused on Johan and Marianne’s development as a
couple, but their performances are also worth noting, especially the aforementioned guest
couple, Peter and Katarina, the latter interpreted by Bibi Andersson, another recurrent and hugely
talented Bergman favourite. Additionally, Marianne’s despondent female
client looking for a divorce at her office that unconsciously plants some seeds of doubt
in her head, and Johan’s brutally honest and sceptical co-worker that raises questions
about his professional work and poetical creations and therefore compromising his supposedly
unbreakable self-esteem, have their characters magnificently laid out during their short
periods of time. These two later episodes are more recently
reflected particularly on Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or Winner “Winter Sleep”, by
the evident lack of romantic nature between Aydin and Nihal, and by Aydin’s sister,
Necla, criticism of her brother’s writing enterprise. For more on Bergman’s influence on Ceylan,
make sure to check the previous video dissertation on “Distant” and keep your head up for
some more videos on Bergman in a near future. Don’t forget to like, comment or subscribe,
whatever feels more reasonable to you, if you find these videos helpful in any way in
regards to discovering and understanding the importance of film classics that aren’t
as usually discussed as other more famous film products. As usual, thank you for listening and see
you next time.

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