Scenes from a Marriage
Bergman without options

by Teena Webb

from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 1-2
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Bergman is depressing. Bergman is obscure. Bergman is a bourgeois artist with all the individualistic elitist elements that implies. These are the customary comments on Bergman. Unfortunately, he is too good to be dismissed so casually.

SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is a painful film to watch. It is the kind of pain that provides a little relief simply because it breaks down the isolation and individuality that we feel when we are alone with another person in a complex love-hate relationship. It is always a relief to see that what we thought were unique and individualized problems are part of a common ritual. The film is not just about marriage: it is about any intense, long-term relation between two people. But it also focuses in on those elements of marriage that make it a fairly unlikely place for such a relationship to be anything other than awful.

There’s very little that’s obscure in the film. It was culled from a series of six 50-minute Swedish TV programs, which may have contributed to its accessibility, but which I also blame for the almost claustrophobic parade of close ups. Bergman makes public and explicit the patterns of a common marriage relationship by tapping into a kind of soap opera approach. The elements that keep the audience hanging in through a long, statically-shot film are exactly those elements that we keep hoping for in a soap opera. But soap operas themselves are a little like the National Inquirer, with titillating headlines that then weasel out of the story: i.e., “Jackie is a Junkie,” and then we learn that Jackie O. takes 500 mg of vitamin C daily. Bergman delivers what the soap operas promise. Almost everyone in Sweden watched the series, the streets were supposedly empty during the hours it was shown, and the Swedish equivalent of the Rose Bowl was cancelled rather than displace it. This fact may say as much about the appeal of the series as it does about the lofty level of the viewers.

The soap opera takes the dilemmas of daily life and defuses them, kills their real import by complicating things endlessly, creating villains and heroes. It becomes impossible to see the real patterns, to figure out any applications to reality, to work towards any analysis from the soaps. Bergman throws out the distractions: practically every scene is about the two of them, alone together.

It is in a film like this one that Bergman is most useful, that he manifests his real merits, instead of losing us in symbolism or philosophy or personal allusions. Instead, he has the courage to confront marriage head on, presenting us with a distilled view of it, and generally avoiding working in a system of ideas. In this respect the film is almost like a Wiseman documentary: there are few comments.

Part of this distillation process, this focusing in on the ritual, includes throwing out most of the individuality of the characters. They speak in clichés to each other, especially when they fight. They have no history. And Liv Ullmann, having achieved star status, can only be Liv Ullmann now. The effect is an almost stylized point of view, which provides a kind of Rorschach for viewers’ reactions. It is easy for women to see Johan, the husband, as the heel, a pompous man who leaves his lovely wife for a younger woman. I suppose it is also easy for men to see Marianne as a frigid child who brings it all on herself, although Ullmann, unfortunately, is too lovely and lovable and hurt for many to be angry with her.

The film is a model of a balanced structure. There are few, if any, extraneous details. Each scene sets up lines of forces that then grow or become more explicit in the next or a later scene. The interview scene is our introduction to the couple. We see a cocky, rather warm man with his wife, who at first is practically tongue-tied, but warms up as she begins to talk about her work. The only danger sign is the fact that Marianne is interrupted and cut off by Johan whenever she tries to talk seriously about anything. But then the interviewer does the same. Bergman knows well the way women are treated, and he shows how the traditional, happy marriage contains the seeds of its own destruction. It looks like a complicated set of supports and balances masquerading as a happy marriage.

Then we see two marriages counterpoised against each other. Johan and Marianne are witnesses to an ugly fight between their close friends, Katarina and Peter, the kind of fight where each remark calls up an even crueler response. It’s the kind of fight that only people who know and have trusted each other well can have, because only then does one know what will inflict the most pain. They are unified only in despising Johan and Marianne for their “happy marriage,” their lovely bubble. Afterwards, Johan and Marianne talk and joke and do seem to be that amazing anomaly: the happy couple. They are open with each other, “speaking the same language,” as Marianne says, and aided by the fact that they have money, as Johan points out. He, at least, is not unrealistic about the effects of their privileges. Katarina and Peter’s fight, however, is a hint of what is to happen to Johan and Marianne.

We begin to see the signs: both are bound to their mothers, tovpleasing them, to living the kind of life they are “supposed to live.” There is a rather unsubtle and funny hint that Johan is having an affair.

But aren't they both fulfilled through their work? Apparently not. Johan seems to devote himself to performing an annoying, probably symbolic experiment in perception: a subject is asked to touch a small stationary spot of light in an otherwise dark room. The task is seemingly simple but actually impossible. He is also a mediocre poet but cannot accept the idea his poems are only mediocre. His insecurity and nastiness blossom: “There’s one who doesn't think they're mediocre.” The one is not Marianne.

Marianne, as a family relations attorney, is continually confronted with the various ways in which the family breaks down. A woman calmly tells Marianne that she has lived with her husband for 20 years, loving neither him nor her children. The children are gone now and she feels free to leave, to search for love. Her world is growing dull and grey: “I touch this table but the sensation is dry and thin.” We see sad aging hands on the table. Marianne seems briefly to wonder if the same is true of her own life, but then she shies away from it.

So we are ready for whatever problems this marriage will float to the surface. Johan and Marianne are alone together, a comfy married couple, chums, with only one problem on the horizon: sex. She doesn't like to do it. With that, the lie is put to the front of their happy marriage, but they are still relating on what is generally termed the adult level. They're friendly, and as open and honest as they know how to be without delving deeper than it is civilized to delve, so that even the words they say which touch recent wounds outside the marriage don't hurt. Marianne says, “You're mediocre but you have your great moments.” And Johan says something about the thousands of brain cells that die each day in someone her age. They laugh and go off to a cold bed.

The title of the next scene is “Paula,” and the audience laughs knowingly. This is where the ritual (or soap opera) really begins. Johan leaves Marianne for a younger woman. “I've gone and fallen in love,” he says ashamedly. Marianne is in despair and is further humiliated by the fact that “everyone knew” but her. But she makes a good recovery, becoming stronger and more attractive. She begins seeing a shrink. She realizes how much of her life has been spent trying to please others. And it is at this point the film begins to look at some classical experiences in any woman’s growing up.

Marianne reads to Johan from her journal, and we see pictures of her (actual snapshots of Ullmann) as a child, then as a teenager as she talks of not knowing who she is, of working to please others instead of figuring out what she wanted, of becoming obsessed with sex at puberty, when it became “deceitful and secretive.” Finally she says, “Our mistake is that we didn't break out of the family collective.” Well, yes—that’s quite a realization, but Johan is asleep by this time, and Marianne later betrays this realization. The scene is especially powerful as the pictures of Ullmann/Marianne make us half forget about Marianne and think of Ullmann, whom we've seen in Bergman films for the past how many years and who now comes to Hollywood as a new earth mother, love goddess, who is now confessing her confusion, realizing how little of her life has been her own.

Ullmann confirms the truth of this in an interview in the Village Voice:

“I have spent most of my life and still spend most of it living for other people, doing what is expected of me, being scared of doing my own thing. I've wasted oceans of time doing what other people didn't care about my doing for the, while they were doing the same thing for me.”

As Marianne grows more self-confident, Johan loses his bravado. He soon echoes her “I hardly know who I am,” describing himself as an “expensive, unproductive unit to be gotten rid of.” He is sick of Paula, he is defeated, and he wants to come home, but they are signing the divorce papers. Marianne and Johan begin a fight which is their version of Peter and Katarina’s earlier one. They say the worse possible things they can think of to each other in a scene which ends with Johan locking the door and beating and kicking Marianne. But when he accuses her of cashing in on her sex organs, she is ready with her response:

“Of course I did. You wiped your feet on me. When I think of what I put up with for so long and have finally broken free of...”

The implication may be that a lasting relationship can exist only between equals, and that creating that equality is much more complicated than for both people to bring in equal money from prestigious jobs.

But she is not free of him. The last scene, seven years later, dramatically called “In a Dark House in the Middle of the Night” shows the two of them escaping from their current wife and husband for some time in the country. Ah yes, they've both remarried, but they're both unhappy again. The pattern continues, and they seek each other out. They have been having an affair for a year, after seven years of separation. Marianne says wonderingly, “We've spent a whole grown-up life together.” And remembering Peter’s characterization of himself and Katarina as children as we see Marianne awake in the middle of the night looking exactly like a terrified child, we wonder if “grown-up” is the right word.

Marianne has a nightmare, and Johan comforts her. The cycle has come around again. Marianne is again the helpless one and Johan the calm, the comfort, the support. She questions him: Are we living in utter confusion? Is it too late? Have we missed something important? His answer is yes, but don't think about it. When she says that she has never loved or been loved, like the woman who came seeking a divorce, Johan contradicts her:

“I think I love you in my imperfect and rather selfish way. And at times I think you love me in your stormy emotional way. In fact, I think that you and I love one another—in an earthly and imperfect way.”

This recalls a certain strain of 19th century Romantic thought: Swinburne saying “I have been true to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.”

When this scene came on, a woman behind me whispered, “Oh boy. This is the best part.” Well, it wasn't. It was the part that reverted to a sad romanticism: Let us, cling to each other, darling, in a big bad crazy world, and even though our love is imperfect, it’s the best thing around. It’s as if the bulk of the film wrestled with a situation, probed it, poked it around, and then, exhausted, gave up and slipped into a little easy hopelessness and brave despair. It’s a cheap ending.

The questions the film raises for me are questions about the possibility of two people, children of their mothers, living together in any kind of communication and warmth for a long period of time. And then there is the love question: What is it? What is it for? Where does it come from? The older woman speaks of her senses failing, apparently at least partly as a result of living without love. Everyone seems sad or terrified at the thought of living without love. Johan must reassure Marianne that they do indeed love each other. Perhaps a more sophisticated and realistic response could have been from the country song, “It Ain't Love, But It Ain't Bad.” Just as the concept of love generally works to the advantage of an oppressor, rather than that of the person being oppressed, the film uses it for a modified statement about the status quo, i.e., the inevitability of the couple.

It is almost as if the message to men is to be patient, to weather these little storms of independence that women insist on having: they will revert to their old helpless selves eventually, if in a new form. And to women, the word is that you learn a little something from all this pain, from all this self-exploration, but nothing will help you to make any basic changes, just enough to tell you that you were fairly well off in the first place.  

It is true that when two lives touch deeply, as in a marriage, there are lasting alterations in the two lives, and that an emotional residue for that person remains. But Bergman seems to be saying either that that residue necessarily brings those lives back together or, if the last scene is perceived as being a cold one, that later attempts to build that residue back into something real and growing are futile. Neither option allows for much change, much real learning.

Mothers, sex, love, marriage—by the end of the film they all seem inextricably entangled, and it all looks a bit disappointing and hopeless. Is this really all we have to look forward to? Bergman seems to think so, and that’s too bad. We could use someone with his strength, skill, and courage to help point the way to other directions, as Marianne says, “to break out of the family collective.”