Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann in Scenes From a Marriage
It's said that when the six-episode miniseries aired on Swedish television, it was followed by a doubling of the divorce rate in Sweden. But that way lies the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In the United States, it's best known for the 167-minute version that Bergman edited for theatrical release, which is the way it's usually seen today, and which I watched last night. I remember being bowled over by it when I saw it the first time, sometime in 1975, and compared it favorably to A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974), which I found shrill and overwrought. The two films have different aims, of course: Bergman's is focused on what appears at the beginning to be a happy, equally partnered relationship, whereas Cassavetes is preoccupied with mental disorder. That the relationship of Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) eventually succumbs to its latent instability exposes the dynamic of every long-term commitment. Modern marriage, more easily dissolved than the ones our grandparents or great-grandparents experienced, is subjected to the searing glare of the five-times-married Bergman and found wanting. At the film's beginning, we are presented with the contrast of the relationship of Marianne and Johan with the viciously dysfunctional one of Katarina (Bibi Andersson) and Peter (Jan Malmsjö) and lulled into the expectation that the former couple have the strength to overcome the stresses that are evident: the placatory nature of Marianne, herself a divorce lawyer, and the egoism of Johan, an ambitious scientist. But the point of Scenes of a Marriage is that we have to beware of the most evident strains of our characters. Often harrowing, sometimes sexily comic, and superlatively acted, the film may be talky but it always makes me want to carve out the time to binge-watch the entire series.