To celebrate the centenary of Ingmar Bergman birth’s – and the arrival of arguably the archetype arthouse auteur – I sat down to a harrowing complete screening of perhaps his most pertinent, powerful work…
Like a gallery wall-sized enlargement of a microscopic image, Scenes From a Marriage is all about size, space, and perspective. Directed by Ingmar Bergman – whose 100th birthday would have been today (July 14) – at 281 minutes long, its unwieldly length presents an intimidating canvas, yet the claustrophobic intimacy of its gaze is unprecedented: The two leads are alone in nearly every scene, many of which play out seemingly uninterrupted for more than a half-hour at a time.
Premiered in 1973, the work is technically a TV miniseries, but such is Scenes… legend that theatres continue to program its nearly five-hour arc in its entirety; a three-hour cinematic edit was prepared for US theatre consumption a year later (it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but was ruled ineligible for the corresponding Oscar).
Not a lot a happens, but then again, everything does. Shot over four months on a shoestring budget, its six chapters punctuate the period of a decade – the audience are voyeurs, dropped amidst the precious and pivotal moments which may not make up a life, but come to define in. We meet the affluent Swedish couple Marianne and Johan – profoundly played by regular screen collaborators Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, both of whom clocked at least ten Bergman credits – gloating about ten years happy marriage to a visiting reporter. Notably, this opening magazine photoshoot is the only time we see their two children on camera – and inevitably the image projected is as glossy, reflective and disposable as the paper it will be printed on.
The pressures, pains and communication breakdowns which tear this unsuited pair apart are sadly familiar – the series was blamed for a spike in European divorce rates – as are the embittered recriminations, jealousies, evasions and exaltations they submit one another too. It may be difficult to survive the piece liking either lead, but impossible not to emerge sharing deep pathos with them both. Heartbreakingly, much of the script is said to be drawn from Bergman’s real-life off-screen relationship with Ullmann.
Working in careful concert with the auteur’s devastating dialogue and the immersive realism of the actors’ delivery of it, is the suffocatingly enclosed viewpoint we’re afforded – a hideously humane, surgical close-up which is likely to leave even the happiest couple groping into the ether on their way out of the cinema.