Scenes from a Marriage marks an interesting crossroads in Ingmar Bergman's career. Directly after the primal abstraction of Cries and Whispers, only five years after the batshit insanity of Hour of the Wolf, and preceding a decade which included an exile in Germany and some of the director's strangest, most scattershot work (a decade that nonetheless culminated in his magnum opus Fanny and Alexander), the six-part miniseries is notable for its disarming simplicity and verisimilitude. If Bergman ever resembled Rohmer and Ozu, it's in Scenes from a Marriage, which candidly presents the domestic life of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), a seemingly prototypical married couple. Shot largely in his hometown of Fårö Island and surrounded by his regular crew of collaborators during the late 60's and 70's - Sven Nykvist on camera, Lars-Owe Carlberg as Producer, Siv Lundgren as Editor - as well as actors and actresses who were among his closest friends, the series benefits from the sense that Bergman was extremely relaxed and focused while making it. Feeling little need for visual acrobatics, non-linear storytelling maneuvers, or sly metaphors, the series presents life in a direct, unadorned fashion, knowing that human emotion over the course of time is beguiling enough.
The first episode, Innocence and Panic, begins with a wide shot seemingly from the perspective of the television camera that is shooting an interview with Johan and Marianne for an unspecified women's health publication. An interviewer (Anita Wall), eventually revealed to have a past school connection with Marianne, probes the couple about their two children and the history and state of their relationship, for the most part gently skimming the surface but also occasionally veering into unexpectedly private territory (sex life, infidelity, philosophies of love and happiness). Throughout the conversation, the interviewer and her offscreen cameraman periodically ask the couple to freeze in their respective positions for a photograph, ostensibly attempting to catch the lovers in some kind of emblematic pose. It's a fitting introduction to this almost excessively intimate and confessional series, an acknowledgement on Bergman's part of the somewhat voyeuristic nature of the project even in spite of its status, technically speaking, as a fiction. Like the opening of Persona, the scene explicitly calls attention to the apparatus of the cinema and the presence of the camera.
This interview also works to lay bare the exposition so that Bergman can jump right into the thick of the drama without having to find ways to develop a bed of narrative context. In fact, at first glance, the subsequent scene doesn't even situate Johan and Marianne as the focus of attention, instead placing the psychological torment of their friends Peter (Jan Malmsjö) and Katarina (Bibi Andersson) front and center. The two couples have a dinner party that slowly unravels into intoxicated confessions of loathing from Peter and Katarina towards one another, an ugly spectacle revealed in tight, clammy close-ups that the complacent Johan and Marianne merely observe in discomfort. Before they digress into antics though, Peter and Katarina mostly make offhand jabs at what they see as the unnatural perfection of their friends' marriage, which has just reached its tenth year. Bergman delicately implies that the hostility that soon boils over between the two of them leaving Katarina humiliated is not a far cry from normalcy, only an exaggerated expression of the insecurities lurking just beneath the surface that can be prompted by even the slightest misunderstanding.
Innocence and Panic concludes by introducing Johan and Marianne in privacy having an extended conversation about the prospect of another child. Their discussion starts in an image that has been quoted several times in the history of cinema since: a wide two-shot from the end of the bed, composing the evenly spaced couple in the center of the frame below a wide expanse of blank wall, both reading a book underneath a cream-colored comforter. Despite the sterility and symmetry of the shot, there's a certain implicit tension in it. It's a configuration that seems too good to be true, perhaps indicative of an orderliness that masks underlying disorder, and indeed later quotations of the shot have often capitalized, sometimes unsubtly, on this impression. But Bergman's treatment of the scene is more organic and complex than this kind of semantic reading allows. When Marianne reveals that she is pregnant, Johan reacts in a calm, collected manner, tactfully asking her whether or not she plans on having the baby. Johan's lack of bias and his graceful respect for his wife's decision is contrasted by her internal confusion and moral dilemma. The conversation, superficially goal-oriented and simple, stretches on for quite some time, and it eventually becomes clear that Johan's indiscrimination, his inability to actively influence Marianne one way or another, only scrambles her even further.
The tendrils of miscommunication stemming from this piece of expertly crafted dialogue extend an air of unease into the second episode of the series, The Art of Sweeping Under The Rug. The title refers to the final scene of the episode when Johan brings up his declining sexual desire only to follow it up by announcing that he needs to get some sleep, but it might as well be in reference to a great deal of the interactions particularly in the first half of the series, where deeper topics are frequently touched lightly but ultimately brushed aside. It's not that Johan and Marianne are afraid to be honest with each other, or that they are incapable of seeing the darker truths of life, but they are cautious of spoiling the positive aspects of their relationship, and they usually end conversations in a loving embrace as if to cement the essential tenderness of their marriage. Such is the case late in the episode when the couple discusses the idea of taking a vacation for a change and it leads to a contemplation of the negative effects that routine might have on their relationship, but naturally the conversation culminates in love and acceptance, with Marianne declaring "I'm so very fond of you." It's clear that there's a lurking irritation here on Marianne's side, especially given the fact that Johan tried to cancel dinner plans with Marianne's mother earlier in the episode and went on to insist upon sticking to a low-key routine that would allow little time for intimacy.
The title's significance could also be said to be reflected in another scene in Marianne's family law firm when she speaks to a woman (Barbro Hiort af Ornäs) desiring a divorce. As a lawyer, Marianne is obligated to maintain stoicism, but her job's demands can't force her to ignore her strong reaction when the woman describes her loveless marriage. She explains how she and her husband have sustained a modest, content relationship for several years despite their utter absence of passion as well as her indifference to her children, and how she has ceased to get sensual pleasure from the material world. Marianne is shocked not only by the way it shatters her perception of family as the most fulfilling source of happiness in life but also by the fear that such alienation could, or perhaps already has, befell her. The woman presents her situation as a sudden realization of all the time she has spent sweeping her apathy under the rug, so to speak, and it puts into perspective Marianne's own way of dealing with hidden marital issues.
If the first two episodes of Scenes from a Marriage coast along on these kinds of subtle deflections of seriousness, the next episode, Paula, offers a sudden outburst of all the repressed dissatisfaction existing in Johan and Marianne's relationship. Set at the family's summer cottage under a forebodingly grey sky (it's easy to forget the episode is shot in color at all), it concerns Johan's confession that he has fallen in love with another woman (the Paula of the title) and his announcement that he will be leaving Marianne and their children the following morning. Following the steady, if questioning, romance and domestic complacency of the first two chapters, the drastic shift in mood and tone is a daring, ambitious move by Bergman, particularly in light of the show's success up to that point. Doom seems to announce itself from the first shot, an image of Johan driving along the island road at dusk in between two sparse trees and through floating fog. He is greeted by a jovial Marianne who wasn't expecting him this particular night, but it is not long before she detects his somber attitude.
Johan proceeds to explain his decision with cruel honesty, treating his blooming romance with Paula - which he has kept a secret from his wife for months - as an inevitable fact of life that cannot be reversed. His tone of voice is calm for the most part, inflected by the same kind of cerebral detachment that has characterized his diction throughout Scenes from a Marriage, but occasionally he raises his voice and impulsively lashes out against Marianne, which makes him resemble Peter from the first episode. Ullmann plays Marianne's response to the situation with a conflicted mixture of disbelief, anger, and acceptance, and her glazed eyes during the unveiling suggest that each emotion has become indistinguishable from one other. Her shock at the sheer suddenness of Johan's confession is mirrored by the audience's shock at such a radical leap in Johan's attitude, and as a result the entire episode plays like a surreal nightmare, an illusion of a marriage going as horribly as possible. Only a slimmer of hope that it's all a dream could possibly explain Marianne's level-headed reaction to her husband's wickedness, her complete lack of externalized anger and even her willingness to help Johan pack for his trip. But there's nothing dreamy about Bergman's presentation of the sequence; as usual, his camera remains fixed unflinchingly on the faces of his actors, following their every move, unwilling to offer any relief from the inscrutable display of emotions.
In fact, Bergman's approach here is so unadorned that it nearly comes across as uncinematic, which is a common feeling I get while watching Scenes from a Marriage. The series' reliance upon zooms and pans to follow the action often give it the feeling of a stage play shot from the perspective of an audience member. Too frequently, Bergman and Nykvist allow the brilliant acting and the dialogue to do all of the talking instead of discovering dynamic ways to frame and block the conversations, the latter generally being a hallmark of their approach. Nevertheless, there's the occasional stroke of ingenuity - the shot in the second episode that observes as Johan and Marianne enter in and out of rooms in the hallway of their home, capturing with Ozu-like precision the flow of everyday life, the aforementioned bed shot in the first episode, or the overhead shot in episode 3 of the couple in a crying embrace in bed, so tight as if to portray them as one body - that exposes their visual abilities and keeps the miniseries from divulging entirely into the domain of theater. Of course, Bergman was a master of both mediums, but his greatest work tends to obliterate the idea that there's any such thing as a medium at all.
Continue to episodes 4, 5, and 6 here.