Scenes from a Marriage

Studio: Criterion

Sep 18, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Johan and Marianne have been happily married for 10 years when things slowly – and then more rapidly – fly off the rails, or that’s how the story goes.

Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage exists in two formats: a three-hour film version and a five-hour, six-part miniseries (the latter of which was watched for this review). It is the slow-burn dissolution of what, from the outside, appears to be a perfectly pleasant union between two people who have been together an extended amount of time, have had children, and come to know one another with an unspoken intimacy that is rarely encountered. But, doubt is injected when two friends visit for dinner and openly quarrel about the ongoing implosion of their own marriage. Peter and Katarina are hostile to one another, having already come to grips with a broken love impossible to repair, while casually remarking that Johan and Marianne have such a perfect relationship – both by comparison and by perception.

Upon the resolution of the miniseries, it’s apparent that Peter and Katarina provide a slight bit of foreshadowing for our protagonists. For in the beginning, Johan and Marianne do seem to have it together, especially when on display to the fiery mess of their tormented and exhausted friends. Slowly, the cracks begin to show in their relationship, though it’s possible that this would have happened whether they witnessed Peter and Katarina’s toxicity play out, but it may have taken even longer to fully manifest. More than anything, boredom feels like the accelerator.

Johan (Erland Josephson) is bored and frustrated by the lack of sexual intimacy in their relationship and the disinterest Marianne (Liv Ullman) shows by rarely giving into his urges. In a certain kind of movie, Johan might be depicted as the victim of his wife’s growing coldness. It’s not that simple, however. It’s never that simple. While Marianne is open about her lack of sexual desire, it slowly appears that it’s her husband she doesn’t desire instead of the sex itself. The fascination is that, for much of the five hours, neither one can be declared the villain or the hero outright. Both have reason to be hurt and each acts petty, unreasonable, cruel, and callous out of either self-interest or a desire to cause damage to the person they know best of all. Again, it’s not so simple to leave it at that. A decade-plus of living together and raising children isn’t easy to snuff out in a single go no matter how despicable Johan or Marianne acts toward the other. A clean break isn’t possible. Their existential crises are similar, as they attempt to find meaning separate from their partner.

Johan does make some decisions that risk sympathy shifting firmly in Marianne’s direction, but taken objectively his mistakes are at least somewhat understandable even if they aren’t forgivable. He is a man who never lived up to the lofty expectations set upon him by parents, friends, or even his wife. Even his efforts to change his fortunes, exploring his creative side in poetry, turn to dust. Yes, his lack of discipline and general laziness are largely to blame, but his cynicism toward his self-worth rules the roost. Marianne takes a slightly different path to escape the loneliness brought about by what is proving to be a loveless, or, more accurately, passionless marriage. She is also more brimming with hope, only brought back down when in the presence of Johan.

We don’t get the beginning of their relationship, though, outside of casual discussion reminiscing about how the two met. The narrative starts with an interview for a women’s magazine asking them about the secret to a good marriage. While this takes place before the fireworks with Peter and Katarina, the tone is one of numb satisfaction instead of rapturous affection. Thereupon builds resentment and malaise. It’s no surprise that Scenes from a Marriage served as an inspiration for Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, except that movie is a culmination of several years of building upon a romance where the finale is bittersweet, heart-wrenching, and terrifying because we know precisely how they began and how passionate Jesse and Celine were. This lack of emotional baseline is the biggest drawback from Bergman’s film. It’s far more clinical and at a distance. And while Josephson and Ullman predictably deliver exquisite, multilayered performances that seem to draw from years of backstory that don’t land on the screen, there remains a wall despite the wonderful extreme close-ups from cinematographer Sven Nykvist allowing us to study the eyes and facial ticks with precision. It plays out with its cards far too close to its chest and is ultimately underwhelming as a piece of narrative fiction despite being a rich example of performance and craft.

Now, one of the worst parts of think-piece culture is the self-indulgent contrarian diatribe from the perspective of someone who isn’t as enamored by a film or other form of universally praised art. You’ve seen the type of headline saying “all the reasons everyone is wrong about [INSERT TITLE HERE]” before rambling off about how it isn’t as deserving of the accolades it has received. This is an asinine, exhausting form of criticism that serves no purpose beyond being a masturbatory exercise. It’s the equivalent of pumping steroids into saying a movie is overrated.

It’s why taking issue with a seminal piece of art like Scenes from a Marriage is daunting and fairly meaningless. It’s also a reminder of what film criticism should accomplish – depending on your perspective. Is it an assessment of quality, a search for meaning within the text, a study on the evocation of mood and emotion, or something else entirely? Ideally, criticism is the beginning of a conversation and not the end, though I’m sure some critics love the power wielded by the pen or keyboard. I’ve always been uncomfortable with grading films with a score (numerical, lettered, or star-based). My initial reaction to Scenes from a Marriage was, much like the depiction of the film’s central relationship, one of disinterest. This has not entirely evaporated – I certainly don’t hold it among my favorite Bergman films like Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, or his later miniseries masterpiece Fanny & Alexander – but reading the Blu-Ray’s accompanying essay by Phillip Lopate “Natural Antagonists,” and seeing how enthusiastically he writes about the film, I started to see more of what excites him even if I still feel mostly at a distance. He discusses Bergman’s own relationship woes, including the one with Ullman that by this time had eroded, at least romantically. Scenes from a Marriage then becomes something of a dissection of Bergman’s own hang-ups about adult relationships and their inevitable decline. This, in theory, is fascinating psychological fodder, but it still feels too emotionally inert outside of a few caustic explosions to have left the desired impact.

The timing of Criterion’s Blu-Ray upgrade is questionable considering the scheduled release of November’s box set of everything Bergman that will include this film. It’s possible that this was on the calendar before the collection, and that it just winds up being a quirk of the schedule.

Scenes from a Marriage remains a must-watch in Bergman’s canon, and will scratch a very particular itch if this kind of stripped-away realist approach is more your style.


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Ingrid West
October 15th 2018

They have reached a truce which they call happiness. When we first meet them, they’re being interviewed for some sort of newspaper article, and they agree that after ten years of marriage, they’re a truly happy couple. And so begins one of the truest, most luminous love stories ever made, Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” or one of the best ads for divorce lawyer hernando county fl. They will fight and curse each other, and it will be a wicked divorce, but in some fundamental way they have touched, really touched, and the memory of that touching will be something to hold to all of their days.