Double Take: 'Scenes from a Marriage' and 'Saraband'

Tuesday, December 4, 2018
A still from 'Scenes from a Marriage'.

Domestic Disturbances

by:
Joshua Ray

To celebrate the centenary of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s birth, the boutique home video label the Criterion Collection has released a beautifully-curated mammoth box set containing 39 of the director’s features. Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema is a gift from the cinephile gods, and includes a 248-page book with critical essays alongside writings from the man himself. The set comprises 30 Blu-Ray discs that include Academy Award-winning arthouse classics like The Virgin Spring (1960) and Fanny and Alexander (1983), as well as rarely seen gems such as Hour of the Wolf (1967) and From the Life of Marionettes (1980). Uniquely, Criterion has also programmed the release like a film festival, carefully selecting centerpieces and sidebars around his major periods – i.e., early melodramas, experimental 1960s work – and major themes like generational divides, the theater, faith, and marriage. 

Marriage, as Ingmar Bergman and his films would have it, is the ultimate societal bond between two individuals, as well as a cosmic linkage unbreakable by adultery, loss, or even divorce. The Swedish film director was preoccupied with the church- and state-sanctioned institution and its flaws from the very beginning of his career. His international breakout hit, Smiles from a Summer Night (1955), is a sex comedy about societal norms squeezing marital tension to its breaking point when its characters start playing musical beds. Bergman would continue exploring nuptial disharmony, sometimes in the margins like in the psychological drama Through a Glass Darkly (1961), or on a larger scale with a couple caught in war-torn Europe in Shame (1968). 

Bergman would most explicitly explore the subject in the aptly titled Scenes From a Marriage (1973), a six-part television mini-series chronicling the breakdown and dissolution of the relationship of an affluent couple, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johann (Erland Josephson). The series – and its subsequent theatrical cut – would become another milestone in a career already full of them: a major television event in its homeland that would renew its creator's popularity there and around the world. Scenes had such a significant impact on Bergman's career that the director would return to its central characters thirty years later in what would be Bergman's cinematic swan song, Saraband (2003). The films – including both cuts of Scenes – are appropriately coupled together in Criterion’s new set, providing a glimpse at what a “Bergman Cinematic Universe” might resemble.

Scenes from a Marriage

1973 / Sweden / 283 min. (Mini-Series) or 169 min. (Theatrical Cut) / Dir. by Ingmar Bergman / Opened theatricaly in the U.S. on Sept. 15, 1974

Scenes from a Marriage must be particularly striking for those viewers only familiar with the most recognizable Bergman surfaces: the ones with Death (Bengt Ekerot) playing chess with a Medieval Knight (Max von Sydow) from The Seventh Seal (1957), or Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s faces melding into one in Persona (1966). Scenes is possibly the director’s most deceptively simple-looking production. Made for television on 16mm film stock in the 1.33:1 square-ish Academy ratio, it features very few of the stylistic flourishes for which Bergman and his frequent cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, had become known. Having previously worked on The Rite (1969) for Swedish television – and being isolated on the island of Fårö, spending time cooped up with the small screen medium almost exclusively – the director knew that the TV would be perfect for the scenarios he had created. 

Scenes is comprised of six chapters largely constructed of medium two-shots and close-ups, a schema demonstrating the shifting power between its male and the female protagonists. The film focuses on Marianne and Johann almost exclusively in spare environments – their home, their respective offices, a country cottage. The setting is so spare, in fact, that their children are only glimpsed once at the very beginning of the film; they are little more than props for an interviewer exploring how the couple “makes it all work.” The feature’s scenarios were partially inspired by a seemingly happy married couple with whom Bergman was acquainted: "I remember they irritated me so intensely, that I once tried to seduce the wife (this is over 20 years ago). I failed, of course, and that made me even more annoyed. I did it in pure desperation, just to bloody well show them. Suddenly I pictured them sitting [on] my old sofa and being interviewed. And I thought: 'Now I'll get them.'"

This act of exploration-cum-revenge fantasy backfired on Bergman as he appears to project his own past marital and relationship failings onto his fictional characters, having recently separated from his longtime muse Ullmann and already remarried. In the major pivot chapter of "Paula" (each part is roughly an hour in length and bestowed with its own title), Johann comes to his wife to not only confess that he's fallen in love with the titular other woman, but that he plans to leave the family behind to stay with her. Ullmann's performance here is a master class in fireworks and subtlety; she oscillates between coy acceptance, explosive panic, and simmering anger. Although they had worked together for almost a decade and Ullmann had become the ultimate manifestor of Bergman's words, the clarity with which the actress betrays the character's mindset must have sprung forth from a raw nerve. 

By the end of Scenes, Marianne is the character who undergoes a complete transformation: from content mother, housewife, and career woman to a divorcee figuring out her new station in life and how to negotiate her ex-husband and the new men in her life. Johann, however, flounders terribly, grasping at any opportunity to knock his life out of balance – whether that be with other women or short-term career changes. His strident attitude towards his work, marriage, affairs, and his future points towards a middle-class malaise that forewarns self-destruction. To this end, Bergman indicated that his purpose in making the mini-series was to explore this exact idea: "The absolute fact that the bourgeois ideal of security corrupts people's emotional lives, undermines them, frightens them." If Bergman was mining Ullman's behavior for her character, it's possible that Johann can be seen as an auto-critique for the director who had cycled through many relationships and two marriages at this point in his life. The candidness with which the filmmaker exposes himself and his own failings is the reason why Scenes from a Marriage remains one of his most relatable and humane works.

Rating: A-

Saraband

2003 / Sweden / 107 min. / Dir. by Ingmar Bergman / Opened theatrically in the U.S. on July 8, 2005

Following major ebbs and flows in both his popularity and critical standing (old hat for Bergman), the director had all but retired from filmmaking, turning in an occasional one-off theatrical production filmed for television. For Saraband, another Swedish telefilm, he would reunite Johann and Marianne, played by their original actors. In a prologue, Marianne – Ullmann nw thirty years older but as glowingly warm and stoic as ever – sifts through pictures from the past, telling the audience in direct address that she plans to surprise Johann in his remote cabin in the woods. Initially, what follows is the expected: The two meet and make small talk, reminiscing about what could have been. However, Saraband subverts its resemblance to a late-in-life work by a director who wants to cap their career with one last treacly nostalgia trip.

Instead, Bergman – ever the brutally honest exhibitor of humanity as its peaks and nadirs – explores the cyclical nature of familial trauma and abuse, focusing on how the couple’s marriage informed the strained relationship between Johann, an absentee father, and his failed musician son, Henrick (Börje Ahlstedt). The middle-aged offspring lives in his elderly father's guest cottage – sufficiently removed from Johann’s house to avoid an unwelcome confrontation – with his daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), a talented cellist who is strung along by her father to keep her close. Similar to Scenes, this film unfolds in chapters that feature every possible pairing between the four lead characters as they attempt to relate to each other, allowing resentments to implode their interpersonal relationships. 

Although Saraband is considerably shorter than Scenes from a Marriage, it still manages to deftly explore three generations of trauma. Here, Josephson’s superb return to the role actualizes what any audience familiar with the previous film could have predicted about Johann’s future. He is a haggard old man whose successes and failures in life have made him unapproachable to those who should be closest to him. When Henrick finally visits Johann, admitting how difficult it was to ask his father for a loan, the older man refuses to hand out any more money, instead taking the opportunity to belittle his already shrunken son. In the next scene, Johann uses his familial power to manipulate his granddaughter away from her father, an act that is at once cruel but ultimately merciful as it becomes apparent that Henrick is physically and sexually abusive to Karin.

Much as Scenes’ aesthetic was informed by the conditions of television production, Saraband was filmed using early high-definition digital cameras. It sometimes looks like the prettiest of home movies, but it also occasionally reaches moments of filmic grace: a shot of Ullmann walking through a chapel as the harsh daylight all but burns a cross onto her body is notably striking. There is, however, an odd dissonance between, on the one hand, Bergman’s mid-century European art film aesthetic and writing style and, on the other, the film’s modern setting and technology. It sometimes makes for an awkward fit, suggesting a work from a filmmaker way past his prime mimicking his glory days. However, this discord does mirror the generational rifts between the film’s family members and Bergman’s own disconnect from 21st-century cinema – a reckoning from an aging man shoring up his legacy. 

Rating: B