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“Social Perspective in 'Scenes from a Marriage'”

By Andrew R. H. Jones

Title: Scener ur ett Äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage)
Credits (directly from DVD[Criterion Collection]):
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist
Assistant camera by Lars Karlsson
Wardrobe by Inger Pehrsson
Makeup by Cecilia Drott
Editing by Siv Lundgren
Script girl: Ulla Stattin
Sound by Owe Svensson
Production Supervisor: Lars-Owe Carlberg

Major players from Cast:
Marianne: Liv Ullmann
Johan: Erland Josephson
Peter: Jan Malmsjö
Katarina: Bibi Andersson
Mother: Wenche Foss

Note: The TV series and the theatrical release are divided into five different episodes or “scenes”:
1) “Innocence and Panic”
2) “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug”
3) “Paula”
4) “The Vale of Tears”
5) “The Illiterates”
6) “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World” or, in the theatrical release: “In the Middle of the Night”

In 1973, Ingmar Bergman’s Scener ur ett Äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage) was released as a five episode, five hour long television series. The following year, Scenes, which had been cut to approximately three hours long, was released theatrically in various countries—including the United States of America. The theatrical version retained the same five “scene” structure as the original; although what Bergman called scenes had different sub scenes within them. This film, written and directed by Bergman, is the story of the seemingly perfect couple—Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann). After subtle revelations of conflict, Johan suddenly leaves Marianne for a younger woman, Paula. Despite this and a long separation, their marriage remains legally in tact, and the two continue to talk and sleep together despite the other relationships they are engaged in. They finally sign their divorce papers after a long conversation leading to aggressive arguments and eventually to domestic violence. In the last scene of the film, Johan and Marianne meet again after years of divorce and sleep together despite their new marriages. The film is a testimony on human relationships that plunges into the hearts of its two main characters, but perhaps the most important theme of Bergman’s film is the conception of marriage as an unnecessary and potentially detrimental mechanic of society.

Through greatly-constructed and deep dialogue, Ingmar Bergman takes the audience on a journey through the hearts, minds, and souls of its two main characters—Johan and Marianne. Both characters show a degree of emotional concealment throughout a good portion of the film, but they conceal their emotions in different ways. Both undergo changes in the film that make them more honest with each other as well as more receptive to their environments.

Although he is a well-intentioned man, throughout much of the film, Johan attempts to conceal almost every negative emotion that he has, although it is obvious to the viewer and to Marianne that certain negative outlooks toward their relationship exist in Johan’s mind. One of the best depictions of this is a sequence which is absent from the theatrical version. In one sequence, in scene one, Marianne informs Johan that she is pregnant, and, despite his apparent open attitude, it is clear through his remarks (Marianne: “Maybe I thought that if we got pregnant, then it was meant to be!” Johan: “Oh, my god! Come on! A modern woman like you who preaches birth control.”) that he has a negative perspective on having a child. Later in the television series, Johan reveals to Marianne his dismaying attitude towards raising their children, which shows evidence that he was covering up his true feelings about the news of Marianne’s pregnancy.

Despite this (and other) early attempts in the film to conceal his emotions, Johan represents a wide range of intense emotions such as anger, guilt, disillusionment, and sexual attraction. As the film progresses, the audience is revealed slowly to these emotions which fuel so many of his seemingly shallow actions. For example, he leaves Marianne for Paula not because Paula is young and attractive, but because he is insecure about his direction in life. Later in the film, Johan tells Marianne that he has grown sick of Paula and is seeking a job in the United States away from her. This confirms the idea that Paula is only a temporary alleviation of his emotional instability as opposed to his sex toy, which suggests that Johan has a sense of strong emotional depth.

The best representation of Johan’s emotional depth is in scene five, in which the couple meets to finally sign their divorce papers. Johan speaks mainly of his disillusionment and his belief that the he and Marianne were “emotional illiterates”. They engage in arguments that lead to further hostility, and near the end of the divorce meeting, this hostility erupts, and Johan beats and then kicks Marianne. After he finishes, he asks her if she is alright. While she is washing off her blood, a close-up of him shows him weeping uncontrollably and finally sitting down to sign the divorce papers, still sobbing. Another key emotion that Johan represents is sexual attraction. When Johan meets Marianne after more than six months of separation in scene four, he kisses her and attempts to sleep with her several times before they finally go to bed. He is very easily seduced by Marianne at their divorce paper signing. Finally, at the close of the film, despite their separate second marriages, the couple meets again to have an extramarital affair. It is revealed that they have already had at least one affair since their divorce, and Johan speaks of the sexual attraction that he felt for Marianne during that affair. Also, in this scene, Johan grows upset when Marianne speaks of her sex life with her new husband, showing that Johan is still very much interested in Marianne’s sexual activity.

Although Marianne initially appears to be very emotional to the audience, it is revealed later in the film that she has concealed one of her major emotions for practically all of her life: her anger. We have evidence of this early in the film when she attempts to tell her mother over the telephone that she does not want to come over for dinner that night but wants to spend the day with Johan and her children. She is clearly irritated when her attempt is unsubstantiated, but she politely tells her mother that she will be over for dinner and acts as if the issue was of no real importance. Later in the film, after Johan has left Marianne to go to Paris with his new lover, Paula, Marianne calls one of her friends to ask him to convince Johan not to leave her. When she finds out that not only does this friend already know, but several of her friends already know about Johan’s affair, she erupts in anger, and, for only the first time on screen, we see her yelling over the phone. An extreme close-up is used to capture the tears of anger flowing down her cheeks.

But perhaps the best example of Marianne’s suppressed anger emerging is found in scene five. When Johan and Marianne meet to sign their divorce papers, they end up procrastinating on signing the papers. Eventually the two become engaged in an argument, and Marianne shares with Johan all of the pain and anguish that has built up in her since Johan left. She is very blunt in the expression of her anger, letting Johan know about her violent fantasies of killing him. Their argument leads eventually to violence, and Marianne is considerably aggressive despite that her aggression is easily dwarfed by that of Johan.

The film uses breathtaking cinematography to exemplify its emotion. Ingmar Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist make very good use of the close up and the extreme close-up. Through close up and extreme close up shots of the characters, the filmmakers are able to depict the depth of the characters’ emotions. For example, the night before Johan leaves Marianne for Paula, Marianne asks Johan to make love to her one last time. A close up shows Johan passionately kissing and holding Marianne. This close-up reveals both the passion of this moment as well as Marianne’s burst of emotional pain and Johan’s immense expression of guilt, as we are able to clearly see his facial expression when he cries, “I’m so goddamn ashamed of myself.” In another example, Marianne tells her friend about Johan’s affair with Paula only to find out that he and several others already know. This is shot in a single extreme close up of Marianne’s face. Because of their choice to shoot the scene this way, Bergman and Nykvist show Marianne’s intense facial expressions. They are able to show the anger on her face and the tears in her eyes while closing the audience off to the rest of the world.

The film, which had a considerably low budget, was shot on sixteen millimeter film. In some ways, this is a limitation, but in some ways it gives the film a certain emotional appeal. It is limiting because the film appears to be stark compared to other film, but at the same time, this creates a documentary-style atmosphere for the characters. This allows the film to become much more personal than if it was shot on thirty-five millimeter film, as it probably would have appeared more commercially entertaining but less realistic and down to Earth. Also, because the film was shot at this low budget, the filmmakers were driven to work harder and to provide more substance. Since the cinematography is so simple, it allows for less room for error, as more error would be noticed than in a cinematically complex film such as Star Wars. Thus, the cinematography, although simple, is very well planned and is able to contribute to the film a great degree of emotion.

The film’s depiction of marriage is all but cheerful. In fact, the film contains a rather bitter message about marriage—implying that it is an unnecessary social restriction that can sometimes be more detrimental than helpful. This is not to say, however, that Bergman feels true love is dead. Contrarily, Bergman constantly points out that love is apparent in many marriages with conflict. The idea that he is trying to portray is negatively directed towards marriage—not towards love.

Practically every marriage depicted in Scenes is flawed. The first example of this is the marriage of Johan’s and Marianne’s friends, and in the film, their dinner guests, Peter and Katarina. Soon into watching the dinner sequence in scene one, we start to see small signs of an unstable marriage—such as Peter flirting with Marianne and Katarina flirting with Johan. After dinner, the two engage in a significant argument which results in Katarina throwing wine in Peter’s face. Peter, who had been laughing the entire quarrel off through his drunkenness, reveals to Johan how upset and embarrassed he is about the fight.

Despite the fight between Katarina and Peter, Bergman does not depict the marriage of these characters as devoid of love. In a bathroom sequence found only in the TV series, Marianne and Katarina discuss Peter. Katarina admits to a certain feeling of “tenderness” towards Peter. Also, quite ironically, in scene three, just minutes before Johan tells Marianne he is leaving her, she mentions that she had recently talked to Peter and Katarina, who still had not gotten a divorce and were confused about what they wanted for their relationship. Clearly, Peter and Katarina have feelings for one another despite their marital issues. Perhaps their marriage is not quite as flawed as that of Johan and Marianne.

The most obviously flawed marriage in the film is eventually revealed to be the marriage of Johan and Marianne. Their marriage seems perfect at the beginning: they seem happy and content with each other, and Johan appears to be at least trying to be an emotional support for Marianne (despite his inexperience with this role). In the second scene of the film, Johan and Marianne engage in a respectful but critical analysis of their marriage. They speak of their sex life, and, while Marianne tries to justify that their sex life is in a slump, Johan simply tries to dismiss it as not an issue (despite that he brought the issue up). Johan attempts to resolve the problem by touching Marianne, but Marianne appears to be in too deep of an inner conflict to react emotionally to Johan’s attempt. Despite this evidence of apparent disillusionment in both characters, they choose, as the scene is called, to perfect “The Art of Sweeping Things under the Rug”. Later in the film, in scene three, Johan reveals his decision to leave Marianne for another woman, and eventually, despite a few encounters of sexual activity, the hope for their marriage is shattered completely in scene five, when Johan erupts in violent abuse towards Marianne. All of this evidence seems to point towards the union of Marianne and Johan as nonexistent, but, upon closer viewing, this does not appear to be the case.

In fact, it appears that a strong union exists between our leading protagonists. After Johan leaves Marianne in scene three, he returns for a one night visit in scene four. During this visit, it is obvious that Marianne still has a deep emotional attraction for him. She comes to answer the door wearing a new outfit—one similar to the outfit she was wearing when her family was having pictures taken in scene one, which shows that she wants to look nice for Johan. Despite a few minor arguments, Marianne and Johan are on good terms throughout most of the evening. Eventually, Marianne reads some of her journaling to Johan, closing with the idea that Johan and she might have had a better relationship if they had liberated themselves from the expectations of the world and of their families. Despite the violence found in scene five, Johan and Marianne meet in scene six, and the film closes with an analytical discussion on love by Marianne with Johan, who is shown holding her in a close up shot. In the discussion Johan says that, “We love each other in an earthly and imperfect way." Vincent Canby, who used this quote to close his review in The New York Times on Scenes, wrote that this ending “… is a happy ending, almost.” An implication of the love between Johan and Marianne is clear.

If Bergman meant to depict Johan and Marianne as in love with one another, and if he also meant to depict their marriage as a nonworking element in their lives, then one would have to come to the conclusion that Ingmar Bergman was trying to communicate that marriage is an unnecessary and, at times, a detrimental institution of society. The film seems to point towards this idea. While the film depicts a sentimental picture of both sexes involved in marriage, it particularly attacks marriage from a feministic point of view. Such ideas have been argued by literary figures such as Betty Friedan and Kate Chopin. Betty Friedan said “If divorce has increased by one thousand percent, don't blame the women's movement. Blame the obsolete sex roles on which our marriages were based.” In the last scene, there is a sequence (although absent from the theatrical version) of the television series, and Marianne has a long conversation with her mother about her relationship with Marianne’s deceased father. Marianne’s mother mentioned that Marianne’s father was always more interested in sexual activity than she was. This is, at least to a slight degree, in line with the words of Friedan. Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, and her short story, The Story of an Hour, are both testaments on the restriction of women in marriages. Like the work of Chopin, Bergman’s film focuses more on the perspective of its female protagonist. For example, in scene five (the divorce signing scene), Johan locks Marianne into his office. She makes the comment, “I constantly warn women in the process of a divorce against being alone with their aggrieved husbands. I never thought it would happen to me.” She is subsequently abused by her husband.

The last scene of the film seems to imply that after Johan and Marianne are divorced, many of their relationship problems are solved and that they lead happier, more whole lives. Johan most certainly seems more agreeable and friendlier during scene six, and Marianne herself comments on his more soft nature. Despite that they did engage in an argument, this argument was nothing compared their previous arguments in the film. When they are sitting eating dinner, a small decoration of a smiling face is placed in between them, and, at one point, a shot of their conversation is interrupted by a close up of this decoration, implying that everything is warm and peaceful between the two of them. At the close of the film, Johan is shown holding Marianne, and he sincerely comforts her by proclaiming his love for her. Despite that the couple’s last affair in the film is extramarital; Bergman chose to end the film optimistically as an attack on convention. Whether or not someone agrees with the morality of Bergman’s characters, it is important to note the significance of his attack on legal and conventional morality.

According to an interview with Peter Cowie, Scenes from a Marriage was a huge success in Sweden. Cowie also mentioned that a sociologist said that the divorce rate went up after the release of Scenes. This film is significant and has undoubtedly influenced many subsequent films with its amazing depth, heavy dialogue, and beautiful cinematography. The film is a classic, having been admitted to The Criterion Collection. The film offers an excellent artistic study of marriage, and its significance cannot be undermined—either socially or cinematically. The legacy that Scenes left behind will live on until there are no longer marital struggles inherent in our society.

“Works Cited”
Canby, Vincent. NY Times Review “Scenes from a Marriage”. September 16, 1974.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. “The Story of an Hour”. 1894.

“Peter Cowie Interview” Camera: Deter Stöpfesghoff. Sound: Ragge Samuelsson Editor: Jed Parker

“Betty Friedan Quotes”.