Ingmar Bergman digs a shallow grave for marriage in this bold and traumatic suburban drama.
Originally conceived of as a mini-series in his native Sweden, Ingmar Bergman’s film (or more accurately the shovel with which he digs a shallow grave for marriage) originally aired to universal acclaim in 1973. The theatrical version, and the one you’re most likely to find on DVD, is a cut that shaved off some 130 minutes, yet left intact all of its spiky trauma.
Scenes from a Marriage is a simple film on the surface. Bergman – who was married five times and divorced four – explores extensively his experience living with, for and under another. The response to this agonisingly real drama was significant; the aftermath of its transmission would involve Bergman being accosted in the street by people begging for marriage advice. Reports at the time showed that divorce in Sweden was soaring, with marriage counsellors becoming highly sought after.
It's easy to understand such a reaction. Bergman's film presents us initially with a severely smug 'happy' couple, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), a pair of 'emotional illiterates' interviewed for an article supposedly about their marriage. They sit on an ivy heirloom couch and list the many reasons for their infinite happiness, a happiness which turns out to be a mechanical kickback to their stale, pragmatic approach to life and romance.
A modern audience might be more aware, even expectant, of the problems that could befall this couple. During their conversation of furtive smiles and nervous shifting, before a snapping camera and jejune reporter, there is the feeling that any slight change temperature could tip the balance of their union.
In their interview they reveal it was not "love at first sight"; they worked at it, as one might work towards a lucrative business deal. The pair often refer to marriage as a 'contract', one which should be regularly reviewed like any other. By establishing this framework of behaviour, Bergman unpicks the fanciful notion, in practical terms, of love in a marriage where complacency and comfort are prerequisites for it ever blossoming in the first place, whether truly or fallaciously.
The subsequent breakdown that Bergman presents us is as much the result of an external effect as an internal one. Marianne and Johan are born into parochial positions from which they cannot escape, a situation that produces the self-loathing they later project and inflict on one another. It is not only each other they have to endure; they must celebrate every occasion, never overlooking the need to appease their parents every weekend of their lives. Each lives for the other, and they find this dynamic suffocating.
When they eventually separate (or at least think they do) the couple quickly falls into the same trap with new lovers, thus repeating the cycle. "How I battle with futility", Johan says. There seems to be no escape. Building the chapel of painful memories to mourn for their lives (yet who could help but feel warmed by the idea of 'beer and sandwiches' with their beautiful wife?) we recognise in their story the inconstant torment and isolation of our existence.
In a key, entrancing scene, Johan returns to Marianne. Both of their lovers are away, but one is clearly more desperate to reunite than the other. As the doorbell rings, she checks her hair, yet she is the one with the advantage. Johan fumbles and forces himself upon her. She mentions her journal, the breakthroughs of self-knowledge she has managed away from him. He urges her to read aloud from it, with false interest, perhaps glimpsing another opportunity to gratify his sexual urges (he even tries one more time). But Marianne is excited, vulnerable, and desperate herself to reveal things long hidden inside her. "Take an interest in my soul, instead", she says. He ignores, she resists, but eventually Johan retreats to their heirloom couch.
As she reads, it is as if we are hearing not just Marianne's words but Bergman's as well. "I turned and looked at the photo of my class at school", she says.
We are shown still snapshots of Marianne as a girl, first, of her lined up amongst classmates. Then, as she explains how she has been constantly oppressed by functionality and the grey machinery of family life, leading her towards implosion, she reveals: "I seemed to detect something that had eluded me previously. To my surprise I must admit: I don’t know myself. Not at all. I’ve always done as I was told."
In this moment, it seems it is not so much marriage but convention that Bergman is angling toward, the living of lives for another’s pursuit of happiness. This is what eventually breaks Marianne down, forcing her into a corner: "Being deceitful and secretive became second nature to me", she admits.
This openness allows us to better understand the guilt that has split this couple, as well as Bergman’s condemnation of a social system that breeds it. We see through the domestic bars to these tamed, suburban creatures, smiling passively behind their bay windows. This masterful film, like Marianne’s revelation, is "just a taste of the marvellous things life has to offer."