"Scenes From A Marriage" **** (out of ****)
When we first meet Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) they are being interviewed for a magazine article. We learn they have been married for 10 years and have two children. The interviewer starts off by asking a simple enough question - describe yourself in a few words. Johan answers first and mentions he is bright, a good son, a good father, jokingly he says he is a fantastic lover, he enjoys sports and considers himself a good friend. Then Marianne must answer the question. She responds by saying she has been married for 10 years to Johan and they have two children.
This comments on an old cliche about married life. The husband has a life beyond the family. Men have an identity as more than a father and husband, they have a job, they get out of the house and have a social life, meeting interesting people. The woman on the other hand is identified as a mother and a wife. Her identity is defined by her family. Her children and married life consume her and make her who she is.
The movie was written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and was originally conceived as a mini-series on Swedish television divided into six episodes and was five hours long. In 1974 it was released theatrically in the U.S. in a shorter three hour version.
The movie is filled with insightful observations on human behavior like the one mentioned. Bergman had always been known for his keen insight into the human condition, for his ability to make audiences face the grim truths of their existence, to hold a mirror to society and make us face our reflection.
Though Bergman was best known for directing films which had characters confront themselves with questions such as what is the meaning of life? Does God exist? What is our purpose? He also made films which examined the relationships between men and women. He was known as one of the few male directors to be able to write realistic portrayals of women. Many times the female characters are far more interesting than the male characters and it was not unusual for him to write a movie from a female perspective.
Going back to the first scene in the movie and the all important question of describing yourself, Marianne's answer will also provide another observation about herself. While society may view her as a "mother" and a "wife" what does it say about how Marianne views herself? It is true, when most people are asked to describe themselves, they can't. We are unsure of ourselves. We feel put on the spot, mostly because, we aren't used to expressing ourselves and spending time on internal reflection and critical thinking. I mean, stuff like that will interfere with our watching "Dancing with the Stars" and other important daily activities.
Still, as Marianne answers the question we sense something else about her. She is discontented with her life. Her inability to answer the question makes her realize, what is her life all about? Yes, she is a mother and a wife, but what does/did she want out of life? Does she feel fulfilled? In fact, what does a fulfilling life mean? What must we gain to accomplish that?
Contrast that with Johan. He is relaxed and confident during the interview. He may even be flirting a little with the female interviewer. Marianne is tense and awkward. Johan is in control of the moment. He is putting on a performance. Revealing only what he wants to and what he feels is important. Marianne is caught off guard.
Next we meet Johan and Marianne's best friends; another married couple, Peter (Jan Malmsjo) and Katarina (Bibi Andersson) as the four are having dinner. If Johan and Marianne seem to have to perfect marriage, which all of their friends tell them and even the two agree, Peter and Katarina are presented as the exact opposite. Johan and Marianne say they are best friends and according to Marianne they "speak the same language" and have an understanding between them. Peter and Katarine do nothing but argue with one another and make nasty remarks towards each other.
As we watch this scene we think to ourselves, which couple really has the better marriage? Sure, Johan and Marianne may not make a spectacle in front of others and may put on a good face however are Johan and Marianne really better off? Their friends may hate each other but their problems are real. Johan and Marianne lead an anti-septic life. Peter and Katarina communicate with one another. Where is life's complexities and quarrels in Johan and Marianne's marriage? These may not be the pleasant aspects of a relationship but they are a reality.
The movie lives up to its title. The movie is presented in chapters. It covers the course of 10 years into the life of Johan and Marianne. Not following, in the traditional sense, a linear narrative. We see them as husband and wife, later they contemplate divorce, we see them struggle with the meaning of that and the effect it will have on their lives and their children and finally a reconciliation. We see all the stages of a relationship. But because it is an Ingmar Bergman film, it feels real. These are characters we can relate to. The difficulties of married life are honestly presented. The pain of letting someone go and moving on are accurately reflected. The film hits on emotional truths.
The hardest aspect of any relationship or marriage is the most obvious, it involves being with another person. People are difficult to deal with. It is difficult to deal with another person's mood swings, their quirks and mannerisms. Especially when confronted with this person on a day to day basis. And soon we think of all we have given up for the other person. What could our life have amounted to if we hadn't met "this person". Marianne thinks that and in one of the movie's several powerful moments she is talking to an elderly woman. Marianne is a divorce lawyer and the woman has come to her office because she wants a divorce.
The woman has been married for many years. She and her husband have raised three children. They have all grown up and left the house. Now, the woman feels she has met her obligation, she has raised her children and now she wants out of her marriage. She says it is a loveless marriage. She and her husband are nice to each other. He was a good husband and a loving father but the love is not there. As Marianne listens to the woman, we can tell she is afraid, one day, this will be her. Yes, Johan is a good husband and a loving father. Johan and Marianne seem like a perfect couple on paper but, do they really love each other or did they get married out of convenience? Because it made sense.
Bergman films the movie, at times, in an almost documentary style. Their is a natural quality to some of the scenes. The acting has a relaxed quality to it. We don't sense Josephson and Ullmann are putting on a performance. We are eavesdropping on a couple. We are voyeurs looking at private, intimate moments in a relationship. We are seeing it destruct right before our eyes.
Part of me wants to compare the movie to John Cassavetes "Faces" (1968), another movie about a married couple. That movies focused on an American couple. Cassavetes wanted to show the lack of communication in marriage. Johan and Marianne only seem to talk when it is too late. When words no longer matter because the damage has been done. "Scenes From A Marriage" though is more poetic than "Faces". Cassavetes' movie has an improvised feeling to it.
What I love most about "Scenes From A Marriage" is its honesty. It doesn't feel cliche. It feels accurate. I have seen the movie a few times. I own it on DVD (where both the mini-series and the theatrical version are included). I have always liked the movie but having watched it at various points in my life, at different ages, I pick up on certain things. The characters speak to me in ways they hadn't before. As a teenager, when I first saw the movie, I felt it was an intense drama in the typical Bergman tradition. When I watched the movie in my 20s, again I felt it was an intense drama but a realistic portrait of marriage. Now, in my 30s the movie seems smart and observant. I see more of myself in these characters. As I watched it again, I thought of my own relationships.
Bergman revisited some of these characters in other movies. He followed up on Peter and Katarina in "From the Life of the Marionettes" (1980) and made an official sequel to "Scenes From A Marriage" called "Saraband" (2005) which was his last movie as a director. It also originally aired on Swedish television.
We tend to think of the 1950s as Bergman's peak as a writer and director with films such as 'The Seventh Seal" (1957), "Wild Strawberries" (1959) and "The Magician" (1958) but the 1970s was also an important time for him with the release of titles such as "Cries & Whispers" (1973), "The Touch" (1971), "Face to Face" (1976) and this movie. It seems Bergman was always making great movies.
"Scenes From A Marriage" is a powerful, honest account of marriage and love and the lasting bond two people can share between them.