Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Ingmar Bergman | 6 episodes (41 – 52min) or 2hr 47min (theatrical cut)

True to its title, Scenes From a Marriage never sways from its tight focus on six isolated episodes of Johan and Marianne’s married life, using each to piece together a collage of a fragmenting relationship. The couple often speak of other people who are important to them, including their unseen children and extramarital lovers. Yet the only ones who ever take up a substantial amount of screen time are those who act as counterpoints to them, as we watch Marianne’s mother reflect on how disconnected she felt to her late husband, and two married friends spill out a verbal stream of visceral disgust towards each other. 

“I find you utterly repulsive. In a physical sense, I mean. I could buy a lay from anyone just to wash you out of my genitals.” 

At first, Johan and Marianne might seem like the most ideal couple of them all, especially since we first meet them confidently answering a journalist’s questions about their strong, ten-year marriage. But even this early on, there are still loose threads that quietly go unaddressed, and with just a few small tugs their lives unravel in a messy, irreparable heap.

Bergman plays with the distance between his actors all throughout Scenes From a Marriage, emphasising their disconnection in these perfectly staged wide shots.
And then bringing them together in these tightly framed, intimate close-ups.

There is no denying the screenwriting achievement here, and lengthy essays could be written about the nuances in Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s sparring performances, but it is worth pausing first to note how Ingmar Bergman lifts what could have been a flat, stage-bound drama into a cinematic realm through his immaculate blocking of bodies and faces. Between wide shots and close-ups, he paints out the flow of isolation and connection between both actors. In moving from one to the other, he often resists the urge to let his actors play straight to the camera, tightly framing their faces in shots together so that one partially conceals the other, or otherwise slightly turning them away from our view in a display of emotional restraint.
 
When emotional extremes run particularly high at the climax of Marianne and Johan’s relationship breakdown, the two make love and collapse on the floor. In this shot, Bergman frames their faces resting against each other from an upside-down angle, emphasising the absurdity that allows such a profound display of affection to emerge in the middle of this bitter feud. It is in his long, lingering takes that he gives Ullman and Josephson the time to let their tiny micro-expressions emerge organically, turning their faces into landscapes upon which the narrative’s progression of emotions are mapped out. Few filmmakers are able to so effectively harness a performance and turn it into a key component of their mise-en-scene, and yet in praising these two central performances, much praise must also be given to Bergman’s direction.

It is just as much about how Bergman frames his actors in close-ups as it as about their expressions, at times partially concealing their faces through profile shots, and in this key scene, flipping them upside-down.

When Bergman’s camera pulls back from his close-ups, these intimate interactions turn into tennis matches, in which his actors are staged symmetrically on either side of a bed, table, or couch, and trade barbs across this even playing field. His production design is minimalistic, but claustrophobic nonetheless, confining these interactions inside a bubble segregated from the outside world. When Marianne begins to consider how their separation might be judged by her parents and friends, Johan impatiently shuts her down, demanding that this separation remain solely about their own personal issues. This may seem ironic at first, given that Johan’s mistress, Paula, is consistently brought up as an alternative to his wife, but it is evident that she was not the catalyst for their breakup. Instead, Johan has been trying to use her as a distraction from the inadequacy he feels from having his identity so closely intertwined with Marianne’s, only to find that this imitation of love just makes him feel worse. 

“Loneliness with Paula is worse than being alone.” 

Divisions between husband and wife, even as they share the same bed.

More than an interrogation of a relationship, Bergman dedicates much of his screenplay to examining the institution of marriage itself, and how the limitations of this contract restrict their bond, rather than nourishing it. No longer do Johan and Marianne feel comfortable being themselves, as instead the rigid roles of husband and wife are thrust upon them by a one-size-fits-all culture. Their identities have been warped beyond recognition, and Marianne even reflects on how little the two resemble their younger selves who got married all those years ago. 

“When I think of who I used to be, that person is like a stranger. When we made love earlier, it was like sleeping with a stranger.” 

Johan and Marianne quarrel, deliberate, chat, cry, and shout their way through all six episodes until words can no longer do these matters any justice. In moments such as these, all that is left for either of them is to sit in silence, whether it be out of bitterness, understanding, or both, and the distance between them feels greater than ever. For all the acerbic back-and-forth sparring that Scenes From a Marriage has rightfully been celebrated for and which has gone on to influence so many other relationship dramas over the decades, it is two specific images which continue to linger in my mind above all. 
 
On the verge of signing their divorce papers, Johan sits across a table from Marianne, his head in his hands, and she reaches a hand out to comfort him, only to pause and withdraw before he notices. Later in the same scene they sit on either sides of a couch, he reaches out to hold her hand, and they finally make contact. With these two mirrored images, Bergman reveals the chasm which exists between these “emotional illiterates”, turning their marriage not into a battle of husband versus wife, but rather lovers versus the space between them.

A wide gap between Johan and Marianne, yet bridged by a simple act of openness.

Scenes From a Marriage is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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