In Ingmar Bergman’s later career, he transitioned over to television. This allowed him space to breath and results in long narratives, meant to see in installments. Of course these mini-series were not marketable (at least at this time) outside of the Nordic countries. So he was forced to make a theatrical version of every mini-series he created. When Scenes from a Marriage was cut down from its six-hour original and viewed in the United States, Woody Allen praised it as one of the best Bergman movies ever made. It helped to resurrect a career that was struggling. So I figured if the theatrical cut was good enough for Woody Allen, then it would be good enough for me. After all I didn’t want to waste six hours on something that I could have gotten the gist of in three.
Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson play a married couple in upper-middle class Stockholm. Johan (Josephson) is a professor who is not living up to his potential. Marianne (Ullman) plays a divorce lawyer who is afraid of intimate moments. They had been married for ten years at the start of the film. Their marriage looks contented and easy. They banter back and forth, take care of each other in small intimate ways and ultimately seems to support each other. But there is something that is brooding underneath the surface. We first see it when they are at a dinner party with a couple that are well on their way towards divorce. The other couple bickers and attacks each other viciously. The woman at one point even flirts with Johan in front of her husband and Marianne. Watching them go through such a public display of distaste for each other, puts Marianne and Johan on edge. They confront each other after the others are gone. This tension carries over to the next scene where Johan arrives at their summer home to tell Marianne he has fallen in love with another woman and he is leaving her. He is harsh in his resoluteness and this leaves Marianne feeling abandoned and immensely hurt. Despite his commitment to leave, he returns several times back to Marianne’s arms. Through a reconciliation, a divorce, and finally an anniversary trip, they realize that they have been in love with each other the whole time.
Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson are a perfectly matched couple. Although they argue and become violent at a certain point, their love and affection for each other is obvious. Liv Ullman’s understated acting allows her to effortlessly transform from a frigid and comprising wife into a radiant and progressive divorcee. She cries and yells and espouses her philosophy not just with her mouth, but also with her sky blue eyes. Erland Josephson is able to play off Liv’s muted performance by becoming the dominant pessimistic one. He wades carefully into offending Liv at every turn. But at a certain point he realizes that he cannot live with her naggy and pretentious ways. They play off each other, taking turns at pushing the other and reacting to the things said. These actors make this dull yet intriguing relationship watchable and relatable.
Bergman has been able to touch on something here that isn’t usually explored in film. Long term relationships are full of self-doubt, reversion, and even sometimes regretful transgressions. It is easy to doubt your love for the other when you get stuck in a routine and a way of living. It is easy to drift away from each other. Being able to drift away and somehow come back together is the ultimate test of a long-term relationship. Johan and Marianne’s love was clogged and buried. It took several years, self-exploration and other people for them to know that the love was still there. This film has one of the most simple yet romantic endings I have seen. Marianne had just woken up after having a terrible dream. Johan comforts her by wrapping her up in blankets and holding on to her tight. She expresses her self-doubt about her situation and wonder if she had ever loved someone and been loved by them back. Johan says that it is ridiculous of her to think that. Of course he has always loved her and she him but in a human and partial way. After all love cannot always be the passionate kind we see in movies and in books. At a certain point it must settle and be a way of life.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I regret choosing to just watch the theatrical version. The film feels like snapshots out of this relationship instead of long explorations of it. Being able to watch this couple breathe and interact with others would make this film go from good to great. If you are interested in watching this understated movie from Bergman, I would suggest committing yourself to those six hours. It will probably be worth it.