The 1973 film, Scenes From A Marriage, is a real endurance test.
That, in itself, shouldn’t be surprising. It’s an Ingmar Bergman film, after all. Bergman was one of the world’s great directors but the majority of his films did not exactly focus on happy themes. Scenes From A Marriage is a nearly three-hour film in which two people — who start out as married and eventually end up as divorced — talk and talk and talk and talk. They talk about work. They talk about their relationship. They talk about their married friends who are trapped in a loveless marriage. They talk about their unsatisfactory sex life. They occasionally mention their never-seen daughter. The conversations are usually friendly and semi-affectionate but there’s a hint of tension running through every single one of them. Whenever this couple talks about anything, it’s under a cloud of disatisaction and repressed anger. Violence always seems like it could break out at any time and, at one point, it does. (Of course, if 167 minutes seems like a long time to watch a marriage collapse, just consider that the film was an edited version of a four-and-a-half hour miniseries that originally aired on Swedish television.)
Scenes From A Marriage is regularly cited as being one of the best films about marriage ever made and also as one Bergman’s best films. Personally, I think it’s a bit overrated but still, no one can deny the skill with which the film was made. Though it may ultimately just be a reflection of the film’s roots as a television series, the film is full of probing close-ups. When Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) discuss their life, the camera gives them no escape. There’s no sudden jump cuts or fade outs to bring the conversation to an end and, as talky as the film may be, the awkward silences often tell us even more about what’s going on between these two. Ullmann and Josephson both give excellent performances. There’s an honesty to their anger and their disillusionment that will often leave you cringing but unable to look away. When Marianne and Johan discuss why they’ve never had a satisfactory sex life, it’s a crushingly honest scene and neither Ullmann nor Josephson hold anything back. When one of their conversations suddenly erupts into a violent fight, it’s scary, heart-breaking, and expected all at the same time. We’ve spent so much time with these two characters that we feel as if we know them. We can see what’s coming, even if they can’t.
If I’m not as enthusiastic for Scenes From A Marriage as some, it’s because I didn’t particularly like either Marianne or Johan. I understood them. I felt as if I knew them. By the end of the film’s first scene, I could confidently tell you that Johan would probably vote for Mike Bloomberg while Marianne would send money to both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar while joking about how, if it was good enough for The New York Times, it was good enough for her. But ultimately, both Johan and Marianne come across as being a bit too smug and safely bourgeois, even after they realize that they’re “perfect” marriage isn’t perfect at all. This is actually something that I’ve noticed about most films about divorce. It’s rare that you ever seen a film centered around a working class divorce. Instead, it’s almost always the members of the middle and upper classes, people who are relatively stable financially and who have a support system of liberal and sophisticated friends and family to fall back on. In films like this, divorce is an issue where the concerns and sufferings are almost exclusively emotional. I think a lot of this is because most films about divorce are made by directors who have just gone through their own divorce and they basically end up telling their own side of the story under the guise of fiction. Ingmar Bergman admitted as much when he said that Scenes From A Marriage was based on both his two failed marriages and his own relationship with Ullman. (Just last year, we had another example of this with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a film that owes more than a little debt to Bergman’s film.) For all of the film’s technical skill and good performances, Scenes From A Marriage is still just two and a half hours of watching two less than likable people get a divorce. By the end of the film, you’re just happy to be away from them.