Both versions trace the painful disintegration of the marriage between divorce lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and university professor/researcher Johan (Erland Josephson). (This rest of this review refers to the complete television version.) After ten years of marriage, they appear the "perfect couple." They seem to enjoy one another's company, have all their material wants, two young daughters, and the envy of all their friends. In the third episode, however, Johan suddenly reveals, with brutal honesty, that he's been having an affair and intends to leave Marianne and their children. Worse, Marianne learns that many of their friends had known about the affair for some time but chose not to tell her about it. Subsequent episodes follow the couple as each considers reconciliation and prepares to finalize the separation. Marianne, whose identity was all but defined by her marriage, finds her identity and begins asserting herself while Johan struggles to come to terms with the great disappointments of his life. There is a masochistic quality to these later episodes, as both seem gluttons for punishment whose emotions turn on a dime.
In the same BBC article, Bergman laments that after Smiles of the Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende) won the big award at Cannes in 1956, "no one would give him honest criticism." Simply put, Bergman became untouchable. His films became fashionable among college students and wine & cheese intellectuals, the apex of the "art house" film scene in the late-1960s and early '70s.
Scenes from a Marriage is an extremely well acted drama and, at the time, Bergman was nearly alone among filmmakers willing to examine human relationships with such honesty and depth. Nonetheless, its impact is lessened somewhat by its self-congratulatory air of intellectual, psychological and sexual enlightenment, and by the many subsequent, equally fine character studies filmmakers such as Bergman helped inspire. Still, it remains admirable just how deeply he digs into the psyche and emotions of a marriage on the rocks.
Watching the series is very much like watching a series of one-act plays. Several episodes take place in a single room with no extraneous characters, and the art direction is utilitarian to the point of starkness. While technically well done, the series is not particularly cinematic, insofar as the drama generally unfolds via long, static takes, or seamless cutting between medium and close shots of the performers delivering long monologues, or in lingering reaction shots.
All of this, of course, serves to distill the drama to its very core (while also working within the budgetary restraints of Swedish television). Generally this works quite well; Bergman has Marianne and Johan discuss their various lovers without ever showing us them. At times though, this device becomes rather arch. After the first episode, there's no sign of their frequently discussed children, and their complete absence, even as mother and father scream at each other in an adjacent room, strains credibility.
For all their inmost confessionals, the film has a curiously detached quality. As such, the experience of watching Scenes from a Marriage is rather like being a psychiatrist or voyeur watching Marianne and Johan fight it out. One may recognize or relate to their problems, but it is always with a cool, disconnectedness that keeps it on an intellectual, mildly uninvolving level.
Though both Marianne and Johan are very emotional at times, they tend to over-rationalize and analyze their feelings. They are self-involved (even Marianne) but, for all their education and experience, not self-aware. As Johan says in the fifth episode, "we're emotional illiterates." The film doesn't immerse its audience in their lives the way, for example, John Cassavetes does with Nick and Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Nor are we invested in the character the way Kurosawa succeeds with Kanji Watanabe in Ikiru (1952). In Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman peels back the layers, but it's drama coldly viewed through a microscope.
All this said, Scenes from a Marriage does have its share of memorable moments: Marianne watching Johan building a fire and recalling the man she fell in love with; Marianne's visit to her recently widowed mother (Wenche Foss), a woman resigned to the fact that when her husband died he took her identity with him. Both Ullmann and Josephson, longtime collaborators with Bergman, are never less than superb.
Video & Audio
As was common in European television of the period, Scenes from a Marriage was shot (by Sven Nykvist) in 16mm in 1.33:1 format. Criterion went back to the original 16mm negative for their Hi-Def transfer of the TV series, so while the image is inherently grainier than 35mm, the transfer is exceptional given the format. The feature version is less pristine, and in standard size, although some U.S. theaters probably exhibited the picture at 1.66:1. The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound is clear and serves its purpose. Color bars are helpfully included for those wishing to calibrate their TV monitors.
Disc One contains the first three episodes of the series along with Ingmar Bergman on Scenes from a Marriage, a 1986 interview for Swedish television running 15 minutes in 4:3 format. The discussion on the film's aesthetics nicely contrasts the two other interviews. Disc Two, featuring the last three shows, offers Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, a warm and informative 24-minute interview in 16:9 format. Each pays tribute to the other (she says their relationship is such that "we can undress our souls") and they discuss the film's production in great detail. Disc Three, containing the feature version, includes a fascinating and, significantly, accessible interview with Bergman expert Peter Cowie, who details the two hours of footage cut for the theatrical release, and the impact of the cuts. Finally, Phillip Lopate has written an excellent, insightful essay on the film for the DVD's booklet.
An intimate portrait of a relationship in tatters, Scenes from a Marriage is undeniably ambitious, but also theatrical and detached. Though critics embraced it at the time, in retrospect it's not up to the level of Bergman's best films, despite two incredible performances and occasional moments of epiphany.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.