Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Scenes from a Marriage

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The same cramped space and abundance of facial closeups that Bergman used in Cries and Whispers dominate his latest film as well. In Scenes from a Marriage we are only infrequently offered relief from the claustrophobic intimacy resulting from Bergman’s preoccupation with the faces of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Indeed, at least one critic has commented on Bergman’s spare use of open exterior shots, without really delineating the analogy between the camera’s increasing freedom of movement as the movie progresses and the freedom gained by Johan and Marianne in their relationship. Their liaison becomes less one-sided and more of a healthy, complementary give-and-take union in which neither is forced into a role he or she may not be willing to assume—Johan as the dominant male whose efforts to initiate sex are often met with less than enthusiasm, Marianne as domestically submissive female (that she has a law career doesn’t seem to substantially alter this self-concept) who defines her life in terms of Johan’s. These are the very roles they play at the beginning of the movie during the interview with the journalist where all Marianne has to say is that she is his wife. In fact, it is not until the final segment of the film (“In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”) that Bergman literally opens up in the way he makes use of space within the frame.

He begins with a crane shot high above a city street. Significantly, it is the only shot of that kind anywhere in the movie. The camera moves down to street level where Marianne and Johan rendezvous near a park; they kiss, hurry toward his car, and start off for the country. Whereas up to this point anything outside the focal point of their married life (the house) is known only by inference through the dialogue—the invisible children, the various lovers they have both had, the places to which Johan goes with Paula—we now actually see them travelling on a real road toward the same house which has become an ironic setting for their affair, a term whose connotations in the realm of conventional bourgeois morality belies the growing genuineness of their relationship. Here, suddenly, we have more real movement, greater variations in the color qualities, a somehow promising warmth in the soft yellows as they sit together before a glowing fire. In contrast, the earlier scenes tend to be set in blandly lit, sparsely furnished rooms that bring to mind a sort of aimless, empty, three-o’clock-in-the-suburban-afternoon atmosphere in which the only signs of life are a television set and a dog barking somewhere in the distance.

Even to be able to see the grass and trees outside, as we do at one point through a kitchen window, provides a measure of relief from the tediously repetitious lifestyle into which Johan and Marianne have drifted. But sometimes even moving to the outdoors doesn’t imply freedom. For example, the camera follows Johan’s car as he drives away from the house, the focus shifting to telephoto closeness, compressing the space to a canvaslike flatness that seems to hold Johan back even as he leaves his wife for Paula. This is about as technically elaborate as Bergman gets, and most often the camera just sits there and stares at those two faces. This is usually enough, as we are left with such unsettling images as Ullmann’s sudden perception of the horror of it all when one of her clients, a graying, middle-aged woman filing for a divorce, speaks with chilling detachment of how her senses are slowly dulling in proportion to the emotional suffocation she feels her relationship is imposing upon her; the objects that surround her seem to be growing dry and distant to the touch, like the oak table she fingers as though it were a crisp autumn leaf ready to crumble into dust. Bergman cuts deep in sequences such as this one, uncovering pain and suffering which often comes uncomfortably close to the everyday truth. It is another question whether this nexus of verities finally adds up to a cohesive document of psychological realism or whether the overall shape of the film—its tendency toward inversion and irony—is more the outgrowth of Bergman’s own esthetic. The latter supposition would certainly seem justifiable—Scenes is as much an artistic statement as it is a social or psychological one. The categories, in fact, can’t be separated. While the mode may be objective, the message and meaning must be extracted from the field of subjective vision which after all is what makes Bergman Bergman.

Screenplay and Direction: Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist.
The Players: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Jan Mahnsjo, Bibi Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, A.F. Ornas.

Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann