Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Scenes from a Marriage (Episodes 4, 5, and 6) A TV Series by Ingmar Bergman (1973)

The sense of finality that looms over Paula, the third episode of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, made it seem as if there was nowhere else the series could go. Johan and Marianne (Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann), the content lovers of the first two episodes, wound up in a split that would last an indeterminate amount of time, and the sheer cruelty and tactlessness with which Johan revealed his infidelity left no hint that a reunion would come any time soon. Vale of Tears, the fourth episode of the series, leaps ahead about eight months from the emotional explosion of Paula to depict the first meeting of the still-legally-bound couple in the suburban home where Marianne and her two daughters continue to live. The occasion would seem ripe for bitterness and hostility, but instead the evening begins in rather unexpected fashion. When they first see each other at the front door of their home, Bergman reveals the moment by observing Marianne's reaction to it, but she is not uneasy or cold. Instead, she approaches the door like a girl about to see her prom date - that is, with a sense of anticipation and surefooted confidence. There is no villainous POV close-up of Johan, only an unassuming profile view as he enters the tight frame from the left, smiling gently at the sight of his well-dressed wife. This is the key to Bergman's non-judgmental outlook here, which recognizes evil and unfairness but always allows for time to smooth over rough patches, if not entirely wipe them away.

Obligatory catching up and hesitant stabs at intimacy dominate much of the action that opens Vale of Tears, but slowly Bergman peels back the unruffled surface to reveal layers of regret, disappointment, and anger. Johan is quick to mention how he has become tired of Paula's mood shifts and pettiness, and also makes an offhand comment about how Marianne turns him on, but his affection feels impermanent. Marianne teasingly resists Johan's kisses and modest sexual advances, mentioning her own casual romantic affairs in the process. They sit down for tea and dinner, and both of them seem acutely aware of the dangerous dance they are involved in, as well as the sense that they are cycling through old routines in a new light. After dinner, the two sit down on the couch (throughout Scenes from a Marriage, a couch is used as a transitional device between small talk and sexual flirtation or intimate conversation), continuing to liquor themselves up and geting closer and closer to acknowledging the elephant in the room. Marianne, sensing her self-confidence waning, deflects the pressure from Johan by reading an entry in her diary that she wrote during their break from each other.

Essentially a reflection on her own identity at this cross-section of her life, the diary entry is extremely confessional, putting her struggles with Johan in the context of her often tumultuous upbringing. Bergman visualizes the scene by pairing Ullmann's words with archival photographs of the actress throughout her life. It's one of the most poignant scenes of the entire series, subtly self-reflexive in the way it draws attention to the longtime collaboration between Bergman and his primary muse, whom he used at various points in his career to reflect different sacred relationships in his life (his mother, his lover, his wife, etc.) Also, it's a very significant scene in the progression of both the episode and the entire series, seeing as it marks a shift in Marianne from a confused victim of Johan's erratic behavior to a women capable of detached self-analysis. Early in Vale of Tears, Johan gives a typically Bergmanesque monologue about loneliness being the default mode of existence, the only way to truly feel secure, but Marianne offers an indirect rebuttal by suggesting that security comes from a feeling of self-respect and self-understanding, which help to stave off loneliness. When she finishes reading the entry, she realizes that Johan has actually fallen asleep and missed much of her speech, proving not only that he's characteristically self-involved but also that his presence and attention is inessential to her stability as an individual. But, as is par for the course in Scenes from a Marriage, temptation and memory flows back into consciousness, and the episode concludes with a prolonged, uncertain progression into bed for the couple, a passionate but transient attempt at sex, and Johan's grumpy departure in the middle of the night.

Bergman's own sympathies seem to jockey back and forth throughout Scenes from a Marriage nearly as often as Johan and Marianne's power roles reverse during conversation. There are moments when Johan's cynicism and despair sound as if they were spoken right from the mouth of the director (and given Bergman's own turbulent marital history, some of his declarations are especially ominous), and other times when he uses Ullmann as an instrument to openly reject Johan's worldview and project a belief in trust and love. Other times the drama onscreen is so alive and free of ideological positions that Bergman seems unsure of who to get behind, and the next episode of the series, The Illiterates, is an example of such an entanglement. Taking place entirely within Johan's nondescript, under-furnished office space, the episode depicts, at least on the surface, the couple's signing of their divorce papers, but a seemingly simple task leads to a harrowing exposé of the trials and tribulations of their marriage, as well as their current feelings towards one another. While the visual style of the episode is particularly bland, even pedestrian (flat lighting and predictable shot-reverse-shot structures), the emotional content is riveting and complex.

Over the course of the episode, Marianne progresses from a cheerful mood to lustful excitement, sudden apathy, mounting irritation, an outburst of repressed exasperation, a return to tenderness, and finally utter exhaustion and pain; Johan, on the other hand, moves from apathy through longing, confusion, depression, narcissism, hatefulness, irritation, and ultimately violent rage. It's a roller coaster showcase - aided by a perpetually dwindling brandy bottle - of all the buried emotions brewing within the first four episodes, the full realization of the totality of Johan and Marianne's relationship. Ever the master of organically butting up contrasting mental states against one another, Bergman presents one of his most exhaustive studies of explosive human behavior in a 50-minute stretch of dialogue that hardly ever pauses until the final beat. Within this time-frame, there is Scenes from a Marriage's most sensuous moment (an unbroken two-shot of Johan and Marianne making love on the office floor with the giddiness of two teenagers finally afforded a moment alone) and its ugliest (Johan hitting and kicking his wife until she's bleeding and defenseless), and Josephson and Ullmann's rigorous performances naturally connect the two extremes. Miraculously, the episode concludes with a sense of hope just barely intact, even as the couple admits defeat and silently signs the divorce forms in the final shot; a clear horror runs through Johan's eyes after his act of brutality, realizing he has done something unimaginable to a person he obviously still loves.

Following this vitriolic emptying of emotions, Scenes from a Marriage offers an exquisite settling of the tides in its next and final episode, In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World, which ultimately finds Josephson and Ullmann in precisely the situation its title pronounces. The episode marks a departure from the claustrophobic soul-baring of Paula, Vale of Tears, and The Illiterates and a return to the quotidian casualness of the first two episodes, only a newfound sense of wisdom and honesty has been infused into the relationship. Before Johan and Marianne are seen together though, Bergman opens the episode with two separate scenes of them going about their newly independent lives. In the first, Marianne makes a brief visit to the home of her mother (Wenche Foss) - who up until this point has only been spoken of, and quite frequently - to ask her some questions about her marriage to Marianne's father. She admits to having felt qualms about marrying in the first place given some dormant feelings towards another man, and her confession is perhaps what sparks Marianne's own admission to Johan later that she cheated on him briefly early in their marriage (a remark that is insignificant alongside Johan's own behavior in the series). Bergman also shows Johan in his office dispassionately fielding jealousy from Eva (Gunnel Lindblom), who also appeared in The Art of Sweeping Under The Rug criticizing Johan's private poetry. It was never clear until now that they were sexually involved, adding another, retrospectively trivial, ripple to Johan's infidelity.

When Johan and Marianne do meet up, we discover that it is seven years since their last meeting (presumably the fanfare of The Illiterates) and exactly 10 years after Innocence and Panic, making it their would-be 20th anniversary. Now split up and involved with their own respective spouses (both seem about as forebodingly "content" in their marriage as they did with each other at the beginning of Scenes from a Marriage), the two of them get together to spend an evening at their summer cottage, where Marianne still spends time with her children and Johan hasn't visited since Paula. Yet again, Bergman stirs up a hint of drama around their initial meeting, shooting from across a busy roundabout as Johan approaches his ex-wife. They stop suddenly behind a tree, and there's an abrupt air of mystery regarding whether they are embracing each other in excitement or going through an uncomfortable greeting. When they emerge moments later in a jovial dash towards the car, it plays like Bergman's subtle declaration that all pettiness and bile have escaped from their relationship, leaving only a mutual sigh of acknowledgement that the past is officially past.

This attitude is compounded when after only five to ten minutes in the cottage they decide they cannot spend their evening amidst so many troubling memories so they end up going to Johan's friend's Fredrik's cottage instead. Johan and Marianne's method is not to ignore the past but to realize that it cannot be altered, and that dwindling upon it only means spoiling the positive feelings still existing in their relationship. When they enter Fredrik's place, a log cabin with a seaside view, they share unspoken laughter about the mess inside, focusing their attention on a clownish paper mache face dangling from the ceiling. Bergman, too, seems peculiarly fascinated by this ornament, staging the subsequent conversation with it sandwiched between Josephson and Ullmann in two (three?) shot and even intercutting a tight close-up of the face in the midst of their dialogue. It suggests a mask, a representation of larger-than-life emotional characteristics now extinguished from the couple's interactions. The conversation in In the Middle of the Night is level-headed and honest, yet it does not lack the power of the dialogue in the rest of the series; instead, is charged with a different kind of energy, a depth and richness only capable of being achieved after the kind of feral outbursts in the previous episodes. The final scene, with Johan and Marianne embracing in refreshingly immediate affection, ignoring time and the vagaries of their condition, is one of the most moving in Bergman's entire body of work.

It takes a lot, of course, to get there, and Scenes from a Marriage is rarely an easy ride, both in terms of the uncomfortable level of intimacy on display and the utter refusal on Bergman's part to lend the miniseries any kind of aesthetic flair. But there's a certain level of focus here - a desire to eschew extraneous shots, settings, and characters (Bergman never shows Paula, Johan's mother, or even the couple's children) - that is astounding and truly respectable. What is left is a series of stark, uncompromising images of Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, two of Bergman's most committed performers whose souls had been transparent in the Swedish director's work before, but perhaps never with quite this level of visibility and vulnerability.

See episodes 1, 2, and 3 here.

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