A Glimpse inside the Life of a Couple a Decade Into Their Marriage
A Film Review of Scenes From a Marriage (1973) by Christopher Wostenberg
In my previous film reviews, I have been loose with the term genre. Everyone has a different idea for categorizing films based on genres. Eric Williams, a Professor in the School of Media Arts & Studies at Ohio University, in his course “How to View and Appreciate Great Movies” for The Great Courses series, lists eleven super-genres for films that can be used to categorize any type of film, which can be further divided into macro- and micro-genres. To Williams, film genres are categorized by three defining elements: atmosphere, character, and story. One of the eleven super-genres is what he calls the life genre. This super-genre takes a realistic look at characters and their struggles, be it for a short period of time or throughout their whole lives. Most obvious examples of this genre include biographic pictures and documentaries. I have already looked at some movies within this genre in past reviews, namely Do the Right Thing (1989) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul(1974). For this exploration into the life film genre, I have chosen to review Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973).
From the onset I will note that I am cheating a bit because Scenes from a Marriage (1973) is a Swedish television miniseries of six episodes lasting 50 minutes each. It was later edited down by almost two hours for a U.S. theatrical release. I have only seen the miniseries version at this time, but if you want more details on the differences between the two versions there are many articles online. For anything Ingmar Bergman-related, one reference I recommend is going to “Breaking Down Bergman”, a youtube channel hosted by David Friend and Sonia Strimban.
In Scenes from a Marriage, the story focuses on a husband, Johan (Erland Josephson), and a wife, Marianne (Liv Ullman) ten years into their marriage. It starts with Johan and Marianne being interviewed for a magazine series about love and marriage because they represent an ideal couple. Johan is a professor, while Marianne is a family lawyer specializing in divorce. They have two daughters and still see their parents often. As the film progresses, we view their life over a ten year span as it faces challenges climaxing in the third episode when Johan confesses to Marianne that he is having an affair with a younger woman and wants a separation. The rest of the episodes look at their on-again/off-again relationship and what they mean to each other.
At first glance, the title of the film seems misleading. From an American popular film point of view, we would expect the movie be chronological, opening with a wedding – maybe even before, with the engagement – and end with a divorce or the death of one of the lovers. A naïve audience assumes they would see the ups and downs of the marriage based on the title with much melodrama. But what makes Scenes from a Marriage work is the subverting of expectations by making it realistic, almost documentary like, and centered as much as possible on key moments within the couple’s relationship.
Much of the movie is devoted to scenes with only the two main characters, Johan and Marianne. Secondary characters and subplots outside of the marriage are largely ignored, placing the relationship between Johan and Marianne as the central focus of the film. While they have two daughters, they are rarely mentioned in the film and only shown briefly in the beginning for a family picture. Similarly, many other characters are mentioned but never seen, most noticeably Johan’s lover, Paula, the cause for the marriage to deteriorate. By not showing the other people, it gives a sense that they are irrelevant to the story being told, that they function more like props or plot devices than actual people. This is especially true of Paula. The audience does not need to see her or know her side of the story; they just need to know her impact on the couple in the marriage and this is done through dialogue between Johan and Marianne.
The only exceptions to this come at the beginning of the film to initially get the audience invested in the couple. In episode one, it is the interview with the journalist that brings the audience into the marriage and provides background. Later in the same episode, the most crowded scenes happen when another couple joins Johan and Marianne for dinner. Again this is used to give the audience a sense of Johan’s and Marianne’s relationship by contrasting it with a socioeconomically similar couple. While this might not be as critical for the domestic audience in Sweden at the time, it is helpful for the international audience that might be unfamiliar with the culture and norms of Sweden. Also, it ensures that the movie can be understood in the future when society has changed. Together these scenes take up roughly half of the first episode. Brief scenes in episode two show the individual characters at their jobs talking with a co-worker or a client, providing an idea of who the individuals are in the marriage away from each other.
The film also minimizes the number of events within the marriage that it depicts. Instead of giving a breadth of moments from the marriage over the span of ten years, the film focuses on key events and draws them out with unclear time gaps in between. An example of this extreme emphasis is episode three, which is solely devoted to Johan and Marianne over the course of an evening and the following morning discussing Johan’s choice to leave to be with his lover. The next episode occurs years later when Johan and Marianne meet up to discuss Johan leaving for the U.S. and talking about finalizing the divorce. The outcome of episode three is not fully shown or resolved, but instead hinted at in episode four. Giving attention to key events in the marriage allows for the dialogue and emotions to be more natural.
The movie tends toward conversation over action. In a conversation, the characters go back and forth in their decisions trying to come to some common ground that is never really reached, while going through their various emotional states. This seems realistic for a couple well into their marriage and conditioned to rationalize out their problems due to their place in profession – affluent professor and lawyer. Additionally, this prevents the film itself from picking a side in the marriage and telling the audience what to think. In life there are many times when there is no right and wrong side of an issue and this is what the movie is showing.
Favorite Scene: Ingmar Bergman, the director, and Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer, have created many great framing shots and images that convey so much emotion throughout their careers. In fact, many examples of these exist within Scenes from a Marriage, and to me the most powerful of these is at the end of episode three. Johan tells Marianne that he is leaving her and after much conversation and begging, he finally does. Marianne proceeds to call another married couple who are friends of the family only to learn that they already knew of the affair. Marianne is left devastated realizing she was the last to know and that she is truly all alone for once in her life. The camera zooms in on her in such a state of shock that she can hardly cry, and then cuts to the episode credits just as she starts to lose it completely. The scene perfectly ends the episode as it makes the audience wonder what will happen to her as she has reached the ultimate bottom and does not seem strong enough to survive without Johan. The break between segments provides time for viewers to anticipate what will happen with this character that they have become invested in and gives us time to build us up emotionally for the next installment much like the character. I will admit that at the end of episode three, I felt like Marianne was shocked and weary of the next step as there seemed like there was no hope, especially as the episode had an abrupt end. I did not know if it was better to watch another episode, hoping that it would get better for Marianne or stop watching altogether as it was too intense emotionally. This contrasts with the first episode ending which is also emotionally shocking in a depressing way, but there is more hope that things will get better for the couple in that episode. Episode three’s ending does not have that hope because of how it ends with Marianne alone. It is the strong emotions that the scene conveys that challenges the viewer to keep watching that makes this scene my favorite in the movie.
Scenes from a Marriage (1973) is not an easy film to watch, especially in one sitting. I suggest getting the miniseries version and watch an episode a night; this is how I viewed it and how it was meant to be viewed. This will give you time to digest it and see how powerful it is at conveying the life of the two characters, Johan and Marianne. While not the best or most highly praised of Bergman’s work, it is definitely to me an essential viewing for exploring the world of cinema in its different forms. If you like it, Ingmar Bergman further expanded on the story of Johan and Marianne with his last directorial film Saraband (2003). We will progress from serious realism to the fantastical in the next review. Until then, here is a quote from Pulp Fiction (1994) uttered by Harvey Keitel as the Wolf “Just because you ARE a character doesn’t mean you HAVE character.”