“All these words I’m spouting are just empty talk. I don’t imagine for one minute that I’ve touched on the truth about us. I don’t think there is such a thing as the truth.” ~ ‘Scenes from a Marriage’
In continuing with the theme of brutally honest films about long-term love, let’s talk about Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974).
The intimacy Bergman captures between Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liz Ulmann), an on-again, off-again couple with an unbreakable bond, is incredible. Like John Cassavetes, Bergman lets a scene play out longer than we’d like, but by the end, we’re better for it. As if we’re voyeurs invited to observe a couple’s most personal interactions, we know this is too painful to bear, but it’s impossible to look away.
Perhaps the most powerful scene is the one where Johan ends the marriage, about halfway through the film, to try a new relationship with a much younger woman. As he delivers the bad news, Bergman’s camera lingers on Marianne’s face, and her silent reaction is heartbreaking. Ulmann, in arguably the greatest acting gift ever given to cinema, doesn’t need to say a word to make us feel her anguish.
The scenes from this particular marriage play like a home movie. Bergman, with the help of longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist, has created a compelling portrait of a couple so closely intertwined that, even after acts of extreme cruelty, like adultery or physical abuse, they can’t help but come back to each other. As Johan and Marianne’s decades-long relationship unfolds, we know that they share a deep love, even if they’re unable to make a marriage work.
Such is the complexity of the human heart. Thankfully, Bergman has a sense of humor about it. Despite the auteur’s reputation, his films aren’t all dour. Consider the title of one chapter, “The Art of Sweeping Under the Rug,” as Johan and Marianne discuss their sex life. There’s an undercurrent of dark humor here, as Bergman slyly winks at us, knowing we’ve all swept similar things under the rug to keep the peace.
If the film feels a little too long, it hardly matters. Partners take years to go through the cycle, from initial passion to inevitable irritation to ultimate acceptance. Bergman captures the highs and lows of it all, and the feelings that consume us in between the different stages. There’s guilt and righteousness, anger and longing, hope and familiarity. No couple that’s been together as long as Johan and Marianne can judge, because each has been in a similar position.
Scenes from a Marriage ends with a shared moment of quiet comfort. Years after finalizing their divorce, Johan and Marianne meet again to make love, a secret they both keep from their current partners. In the middle of the night, Marianne is startled by a nightmare. “Sometimes it grieves me that I’ve never loved anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been loved either. That distresses me,” she says. Johan reassures her. “I know what I feel. I love you in my selfish way. And I think you love me in your fussy, pestering way. We love each other in an earthly and imperfect way.”
When it comes to relationships, we follow the wind and hope that we’ll be guided in the right direction. Bergman doesn’t take sides because there are no sides to take. In love, none of us know what we’re doing. Our emotions change. The more time we spend with someone, the less we know. To quote David Brooks, “Marriage is a 30- or 40- or 50-year conversation that ends with a confusion.”
Bergman has great empathy for Johan and Marianne, and he displays a maturity that can only come from having loved and lost. His work is often characterized as bleak, but Scenes from a Marriage is hopeful.
After years of brutal confrontations and bitter ends, Johan and Marianne can finally spend time in the same room and enjoy each other’s company. That’s marriage.