If I may grossly over-simplify the Ingmar Bergman worldview: we’re born, we die and in between, we treat each other like shit. The legendary Swedish filmmaker is a sheer master at pointing a camera at people and wringing buckets of genuine, truthful misery from them.
Scenes from a Marriage is a three-hour distillation of a six-part mini-series he did for Swedish television. Despite its significant length and the fact that most of the film is comprised of extended dialogues between two people, the film holds your attention in an iron grip.
Of course, it helps that not only do you have Bergman behind the camera, but you have talent like Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, two very significant figures from the Scandinavian cinema and longtime collaborators of Bergman’s, in front of it. Both actors give expertly modulated performances that build to a raw and powerful emotional climax.
Johan (Josephson) and Marianne (Ullman) are an outwardly happy and prosperous middle class couple with two daughters. He is a brash, self-confident academic while she is an emotionally reserved family law attorney. We see, however, in their polite avoidance of difficult topics and guarded conversations with others, that the happiness may be all surface. From the beginning, we learn that their ten-year marriage may have been a compromise that pleased their families more than it did them.
Then one day, out of the blue, Johan announces that he’s fallen in love with Paula, a woman many years his junior, and they are leaving for Paris for six months. At first, Marianne tries to be stoic and understanding but we see by the next morning she’s devastated. She’s even more humiliated to learn that most of their friends were aware of Johan’s affair.
The film proceeds as they reconnect at various points along the decaying trajectory of their marriage. Despite the hurt and betrayal, these two people find they understand each other more than the other people in their lives. This understanding sometimes erupts in brutally honest and hurtful comments, but despite the pain they cause each other, they are still connected in a profound way.
However, as the film progresses, the two roles start to reverse. Johan’s life, professional and personal disintegrates while Marianne’s self-confidence grows, until he is practically begging her to take him back and she is simply not interested.
The film climaxes in a long scene taking place in Johan’s office, in which the couple are to finalize their divorce. This acting duet erupts with both sex and violence as the emotions start to both rock and roll. It’s an emotionally draining and devastatingly truthful scene.
In the end, however, even years after their divorce, these two are still together, even cheating on their new spouses which each other, able to tell each other the truth they were afraid to say in their marriage.
The look of the film is minimalist, spartan, shot on 16mm film with a starvation budget. I mean, either all of the telephones in Sweden are the exact same color or Bergman had to make do with the same prop telephone for the whole movie.
Fortunately, you don’t need a big budget when your special effects consist of a deeply insightful story and two enormously talented actors.