Ingmar Bergman: Scenes From A Marriage (1973) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Scenes From A Marriage (1973)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYA sign of a great film is one that reaches a wide audience by telling a specific story and sometime's those stories require that you just live a bit.  So sometimes I'm just not ready for a certain movie until I've gone through the requisite life experiences needed to teach me whatever invisible lessons are waiting to appreciate a previous work.  Today, when I was watching Scenes From A Marriage for the fourth time something finally clicked inside me.  Here, presented in stark reality, is the alternately toxic and loving relationship of Johan and Marianne and I realized that too many, myself included, have had to live the life of a Marianne.

We open on Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullman).  They have been married for several years and seem to be happy.  At least that's what Johan tells an interviewer that is doing a piece on their family and relationship.  It's unknown what Marianne thinks, at least at first, since she seems to define herself entirely in terms of how she reacts to Johan and thinks very little of herself.  Neither Johan nor Marianne will stay dominant and submissive (respectively) for very long because this film isn't interested in a single moment that will test their love as with most films about relationship.  Instead we are with them for the long haul, watching years of development, rage and hope flare up and die as they live their lives.

As painful as their experiences are they share a love that is too strong to die but too weak to avoid hurting one another.

Scenes From A Marriage was originally made for Swedish television (six episodes at about an hour each) and then was cut down for a theatrical release (nearly three hours).  The difference between viewing the film version versus the television version are pretty vast but you get a great experience either way.  We get to know more about the rhythms of Marianne and Johan's lives with the television version and with the film version we hit just the high emotional points of their relationship.  There are also several plot points that are completely dropped, such as some last minute details about Marianne and her parents; or are modified extensively and only hinted at, such as Marianne's abortion.

No matter which version you watch the plot will be just as vast and dense, just in slightly different directions.  We start with the television interview where Johan and Marianne's marriage is examined, move onto an ill-fated dinner party that puts the possibility of divorce into their heads, and then the many years afterwards as Johan comes out with his infidelity and the two begin to grow apart as much as they are together.  Those broad details are intact in both versions but I much prefer the television one.  There are many  details provide some much needed breathing room away from their emotional issues and the subplots involving Marianne's mother and father provide a nice counterpoint to her relationship with Johan.

It's clear that Bergman has been living with Johan and Marianne his entire life and wanted to show them in the realistic fashion they deserve.  The way he outlined relationships previously always had a hint of the macabre, the supernatural, or the outright horrific.  Here those pretenses are completely dropped, there's very little in the way of religion or spirituality (outside of Johan's occassional tirades) and the two live in a sterile environment that feels not altogether removed from any middle class apartment.  But the lack of decorations and adornments help Bergman and Sven Nykvist to make this his most claustrophobic of films.

Like most directors, Bergman is unafraid of showing the horror of domestic violence. He digs deeper than the visceral reaction and shows the two living with and through it.

Lacking grand symbolic gestures Nykvist and Bergman opt to have the focus on Johan and Marianne's faces nearly the entire run of the movie.  This is part of what makes the film version so trying to get through as opposed to the television one.  There is agony in Marianne's face when Johan tells her that he has gone and fallen in love with someone else.  When that is over we transition to Marianne alone and angrily dealing with a related betrayal from a mutual friend.  In the television version we cut away to some peaceful landscape so that there are a few moments of reflection and calm before the next episode (should you have the emotional fortitude to watch one after another).  The film version doesn't have that luxury and we jump straight from one confined space to another.

Nykvist's camera is always exactly where it needs to be to capture the varied expressions that Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman display throughout their relationship.  Both of them deliver what are career high performances in a film that could have been filled with excess that even Bergman's best films (Cries and Whispers, The Seventh Seal) indulged in.  Ullman, usually in the role of the hysteric or a sensual plotter, is given full range to grow from a wallflower into a woman whose strength dwarfs Josephson's Johan.  He is also given a number of difficult moments to provide the right emotional spin to, especially during a particularly violent moment when he uses violence to confront the stronger Marianne when they're finally ready to divorce.

As stark and intense the film is, it's also Bergman's most emotionally varied.  There are moments of hatred and sadness, but there are also many scenes of comedy and love.  The most tender moment comes near the end, years after they have ended their marriage, when Johan lights a fire and begins to whistle a tune.  Marianne is struck silent and listens, remembering that there is still a gentility to Johan that she loves.  I'm grateful for these moments because if it were all infidelity and violence then it would just be a misery parade, not an honest portrayal of marriage - at least how Bergman views marriage.

Nykvist positions things in such a way that Ullman is looking straight through Johan with her pain, and we see he is too ashamed to return that expression.

He was married several times in his life and fathered a number of children.  He also carried on a number of affairs with many of the actresses he worked with (Ullman included).  Bergman understood that the duties and responsibilities that come with marriage do not come with the love.  Here is but one example of a couple that was stifled by the marriage they thought they needed (not either one's first or last either) and how they can come together and touch one another in such a way that those bonds were never needed to begin with.  Marriage is a fine thought, and one I still wish to pursue, but sometimes it really is just another obstacle that gets in the way of the happiness for some.

Sadly, this is going to be one of Bergman's last Swedish productions before his exodus from Sweden for a few years.  We have one more film to go through before this dark time, his production of The Magic Flute.  See you next week!

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Scenes From A Marriage (1973)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson.

Posted by Andrew

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