Sour experience of a film that was recently #82 on Entertainment Weekly’s 100 All-Time Greatest Films list and an original 4-star rating from Roger Ebert. Scenes from a Marriage (1974, Sweden) is the Ingmar Bergman film that I hadn’t seen until now, and gratefully so. If I had seen it first, I might never have bothered with his other work and I would have missed titles that mattered: “Wild Strawberries” (1959), “Persona” (1966), “Cries and Whispers” (1973). It concentrates on up close dialogues between a married couple on the fray: Liv Ullmann (as Marianne) and Erland Josephson (as Johan). There are several long episodes, which explains how it was first a 6-hour mini-series for Swedish television. For the rest of the world, it became a 168-minute diatribe on anguished marital friction and inner turmoil, and melancholic things are said like “Loneliness is absolute.” Leave it to the windbags on the internet to tell you how the theatrical version is different from the original 6-hour mini-series.
I imagined that most well put-together people today would turn this off after thirty minutes. What was worse for me, is that – while not entertaining – I was intrigued and compelled for two hours as a portrait of depressed bourgeois malaise, before I urgently decided that the film devolved into stinky-hooey B.S. Johan and Marianne’s big fight is a bleak downer, and it was then that I suddenly became aware that 2013’s “Before Midnight” was a way better film, even though I had reviewed it negatively. I mean “Midnight” opened with a lousy 12-minute shot of a stressed married couple in a car with a boring shot-composition choice, but it had a climactic hotel room fight that had some fearless truth to it when it came to escalating irrational ugly couples’ fights. I had felt soured though that I had loved Jesse and Celeste in the previous installments of the trilogy. Oh there I go… I have become completely sidetracked and have stopped talking about “Scenes from a Marriage.”
Johan and Marianne are boring, insufferable people who inhabit dreary art direction. I don’t care how much money these people have made, they haven’t done anything fun with the money they’ve made in their lives – they don’t go anywhere, they seem to live their lives in static rooms. Actually, I like Johan more even though he does something despicable: He comes home one day (in episode/chapter 3) and announces he is in love with a 23-year old named Paula, who is every bit as selfish and coveting, and that he is flying away to Paris with her in the morning. He has been bored for four years, waiting to escape his existence. His two children are too young to understand his decision, too, a fact he is blunt about.
Is it shallow of me to say that I can’t blame him? Marianne is a miserable bore of a human being (I’d rather jump off the highest cliff in Sweden than be married to her), a woman dissatisfied with every action imaginable, and too insecure to enjoy her sexuality. But how about that sexuality? After Johan leaves her, and they both move on with their lives and even marry others, they will return to each other’s arms and rekindle sexuality together during their reunions. I half expected a scene of Johan and Marianne taking turns performing oral sex on each other while they would come up for air and analyze their deepest thoughts.
The film ends, by the way, on one of those Bergman-esque scenes of dreams and the interpretation of loneliness, with Marianne gasping for air after a bad dream (Oh no, she had stumps for hands!) and, boo hoo, not feeling that she’s ever been loved in her life. Dear God, the Bergman films of characters talking about their dreams were always grating, except for the erotic reverie recalled in “Persona.” That one sizzled the imagination.
What does it all mean, though? Johan and Marianne needed to break apart from the mold of marriage, separate, and reunite to have a passionate love for each other all over again. Conventional confines of marriage was never going to make either of them happy, but informal sex-and-diatribe reunions seem to be what brings them happiness.
I wonder if the pretentious 18-year old I once was would have ate up this film. I am nearly twice as older, I have a carefree and charmed marriage, and have not had a single fight in my life that resembles one in “Scenes from a Marriage.” I think this is due to that neither me or my wife are anxious or high-strung, nor do either of us find enjoyment in watching angsty Swedish couples. I dunno, we seem to have an idea of how to make our own happiness. On the contrary, Bergman’s idea of marriage is man and wife digging their own separate infinite holes into terminal unhappiness.
Ebert, who I’ve cherished, called the theatrical film “One of the truest, most luminous love stories ever made,” but he hadn’t met his wife Chazz yet. If Ebert had found true love, he wouldn’t have seen this Bergman film as a love story but an all-out tragedy. Even as tragedy, “Scenes from a Marriage” fails for me.
168 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / FRIDAY NIGHT BUMMER
Film Cousins: “La Notte” (1962, Italy); “Saraband” (2003, Sweden); “Revolutionary Road” (2008); “Before Midnight” (2013).