Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 24, September 27, 1976.
Scenes from a Marriage
Scenes from a Marriage
Ingmar Bergman's 'Scenes From a Marriage' is an overwhelmingly intense film. Its theme is the coherent ambivalence of life, the subject a couple in love.
Johan is 42, a shining product of his cultured bourgeois environment. His liberal veneer (he does not allow his wife a career, he simply expects it) snuggles in very happily with his basic conservatism. He has a strong faith in conventions. When his wife asks him, is he living as he wants to he says yes. She means, is he happy with their marriage, with his job. He is not, but he believes quite fundamentally that his form of marriage, his style of profession, are the best means of attaining a purposeful, satisfying existence.
Marianne is 35. She shares Johan's background (the film has her put it in that way), and likewise believes in the form of their marriage. However she has no trouble uniting this form with its content. Educated but soundly conditioned - she understands the word 'perspicacious' but has never seen its application to her - she accepts her supportive role. About to have their photo taken, says, 'I'll try and make myself look small' - in order that he will bring to their relationship the same volume of love that she does. Her claim, 'I made up my mind at the beginning to believe verything Johan says,' contains a good deal less irony than she intends. It is not that she thinks him incapable of lying, but recognizes the need for implicit trust.
The film charts their attempts to come to terms with the essential vacuity of their lifestyle, and the even larger vacuity which reigns when they are separated from each other. Put very simply, first Johan and then Marianne reject the love of the other but try to maintain in their 'new' lives the conditions in which it was given. This process is considerably complicated by the love that remains, and by the individually and gradually perceived notion that they have irreversibly confused content and form. Apart from this cumulative recognition, he develops in that he becomes able to expose his fears to her, and she undertakes through psychoanalysis the process of becoming aware of herself. Nevertheless, in spite of this progress, their final acknowledgement of their love puts them right back to square one: she implicitly accepts his definitions of her and the love they share, and he gains a deep strength from her acceptance. Naive faith is transformed into a weary but happy resignation.
Scenes from a Marriage is psychological and behavioural realism of the first order. In the hands of a lesser director it would be a romance; Bergman has created a relentless barrage which leaves one exhausted and confused. The reason is threefold.
Firstly, the profound realism plays havoc with our ability to organise the ambivalence (the above synopsis is very broad sketch indeed). This ability is natural enough in life, but must be applied to art, part of whose purpose is the revealing of life's organisational methods. The difficulties Bergman places before us are intended to make the rewards all the more valuable.
Secondly, the means employed to tell the story owe much to documentary. There are six 'scenes', each with a title, the film begins with an interview which establishes the relationship, and during the film's course both the protagonists deliver lengthy verbal assessments of themselves to each other. The titles (with one exception), give us a metaphorical framework for interpretation. The interview and moments of self-explanation provide definitions which, by considering the circumstances in which they occur as well as what is actually said, enable us to strengthen our comprehension but do not precipitate relaxed viewing.
Thirdly, the camera is rigidly applied for much of the time to individual faces. This technique is analogous to the neo documentary form, in that we are at once almost emotively inside the subjects, and forced to study them because of their unremitting presence. Unfortunately, a paradoxical situation is created, whereby there is so much vital action we want to see but which remains off screen, yet to show more would be to slacken the intensity.
The major reason for this demand for more is the brilliant acting. The empathy which Liv Ullman (Marianne) and Erland Josephson (Johan) share with Bergman and each other is largely responsible for the success of the film. Ullman is my pick of the world's screen actresses, and here her ability is never better proven. She has in Josephson (the architect in The Passion of Anna, the doctor in Cries and Whispers) a tremendously fitting counterpart.
But moreso than the acting, the lasting importance of this film lies in Bergmans attempt to extend the bounds of cinematic form. The creation of mutually exclusive demands on the camerawork is one indication that he is not entirely successful, yet this is a minor matter. The synthesis of documentary approach and fictional, intuitively understood content means that through the dissemination that occurs our deep emotional relationship with the story provokes analysis. Such a forceful indication of the inseparability of intellect and emotion is a rare achievement.
Given all this, the ending, in spite of (or perhaps partially because of) its broad social and philosophical pronouncements, is surprisingly light-weight. The happiness the couple finally achieve is only possible because it is transitory. It exists, as the title tells us, 'in the middle of the night, in a dark house" Yet this title is clearly a metaphor. We may recognise that they are lost in the world, but this one moment almost asks us to forget that, to treat the story just as a romance. The propelling intensity of all that proceeds does create a desire for relief, but within the precepts of the story none is possible. It is almost as if Bergman takes pity on his audience, which in this case is a dangerous thing to do.
Scenes from a Marriage is a flawed masterpiece. Its portrayal of a marriage reaches far into the psyche of anyone able to identify with it, and provides for all a devastating example of genuine artistry.
— Simon Wilson.