Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Note: This is a review of the 167 minute theatrical film version of the TV mini-series Scenes from a Marriage.

I’ve been hard on filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. While I love The Seventh Seal and Winter Light, I’ve found the rest of his filmography to be overbearing, excessive and stylistic in a particularly grating and frustrating way. I’ve watched and rewatched some of his most loved and acclaimed films, but with a general sense that Bergman is not for me. However, after this first viewing, I know Scenes from a Marriage is another delightful exception.

The film exhibits a naturalistic aesthetic I can appreciate. For instance, the opening scene is a simple shot behind a lady interviewing the main couple of the film: Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann). As the scene continues, the shot moves closer and closer until the camera has taken up the point of view of the interviewer. It is no longer she who is engaging with the couple, but the audience.

Bergman is still able to approach the characters with his signature sympathy. Close-ups of grueling emotional encounters are still present, but with a more muted and restrained aesthetic. Colors are less lively, the lighting is even. Here, the sense of space, light and color are vaguely warm, but more complacent in order to demonstrate the domesticity of marriage. It’s a neutral familiarity, not an overabundance of intense colors and lighting.

And the more intense emotions do come. Here, Bergman could resort back to the more lurid and lush cinematography of his previous works, but instead he remains steadfast at continuing this aesthetic of complacency even amid the tumultuous waves a marriage on the brink of destruction. He lets the performances of Josephson and Ullmann shake the audience, not his film-making.

The choice to remain aesthetically neutral, more than anything else, allows the power and majesty of this film to speak. The material is potent, the performances astounding. A turn of words or an expression can suddenly change the mood and intent of a scene; it can begin to launch sparks between the characters as conflict arises between them.

This allows for the problems of the couple to become more acute. Through all this, we see how one can mistake this marriage as steadfast when it might just be more of indifference, a product of habit instead of devotion and love. In one humorous sequence, Marianne decides to break away from years of tradition by refusing to attend the weekly Sunday dinner with their parents. She’s frustrated with the endless, ridged schedule that has lulled both her and her husband into sleepwalking through their marriage.

I’m glad to add Scenes from a Marriage alongside Winter Light and The Seventh Seal as one of the few Bergman films I love. The controlled aesthetic and the strength of the material results in a beautiful examination of a subject that fewfilms explore with such depth, frankness and humanity. While it might be presumptuous to call it the film on marriage, it is certainly one of the finest films on the subject.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing