Judge Dan Mancini knows that an Ingmar Bergman movie can never reach the depth and complexity of Mad About You, but that's no reason to avoid Bergman's take.
Johan and Marianne have been happily married for ten years. Johan is an associate professor, and Marianne is a lawyer specializing in family law. They lead a comfortable life with their two daughters.
After 1972's Cries and Whispers, Ingmar Bergman teamed with two of that film's stars, Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, for a six-part television miniseries called Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett Äktenskap). When the show was a massive hit in Scandinavia, Bergman cut it down to just under three hours for a theatrical release in international arthouses, where it was equally acclaimed.
The full Swedish television version of Scenes has never before been available in the U.S. home video market, but the Criterion Collection has remedied that with this dazzling three-disc set. The miniseries is spread across Discs One and Two, while the theatrical cut is offered on Disc Three. And there are a few extras to boot. Now that's what I call definitive.
Scenes from a Marriage is about entropy in a relationship whose passion has been replaced by propriety. The film opens with Johan and Marianne being interviewed for a magazine article about their perfect marriage. They're a comfortably bourgeois power couple, educated professionals with two children and ample material possessions. To the world outside, they appear to have it all, but as the tale unfolds, we begin to realize they're going through the motions, living without intent.
Essentially a chamber play, the film offers only a handful of characters in addition to the couple. Even the couple's daughters disappear after a brief, non-speaking appearance at the beginning of the first episode; their further presence is only felt when Johan and Marianne speak about them. As a matter of fact, the only secondary roles that have much dramatic impact are superlative turns by Bibi Andersson (Persona, Wild Strawberries) and Jan Malmsjö (Fanny and Alexander), as a couple whose rapidly disintegrating marriage and cruelty toward one another foreshadow the fate of the leads. In half of the series' episodes, Johan and Marianne are the only characters on screen, though their discussions about friends, family, and lovers make the piece feel more expansive than it actually is. On top of all that, the couple's compassion and cruelty toward one another, their fight for control of the relationship, and acceptance that such control is impossible, unfurl with little in the way of histrionics. One might assume a five-hour telefilm with such dark and wrenching subject-matter, comprised almost entirely of intimate conversations between two characters, with only punctuations of high emotion, would tax an audience's patience, but Bergman's tale is strangely mesmerizing.
But for the delicacy of Bergman's screenplay and Ullman's and Josephson's impressive handling of dense and challenging material, the film could easily have slid into the worst sort of pretension. As it is, we're told far more than shown—the couple, for instance, discusses their respective lovers, but we never see them—and much of the dialogue is abstract and hyper-intellectual considering the emotional nature of the situation. I normally hate pieces in which characters explain their own psychologies, a device that's usually the sign of a hack screenwriter. In the case of Scenes, though, Bergman deftly mixes banal but highly mimetic dialogue about, say, beer and sandwiches, or the encroaching paunchiness of middle age, with intricate discussions of intimacy, sex, fidelity, money, career, lost potential, filial obligation, and propriety. The result is a film whose philosophical exploration has a solid foundation in mundane realism. Scandinavians fell in love with the miniseries because Bergman seemed finally to be delivering characters who were average people, a couple to whom they could relate. In truth, the film is no less metaphysical than The Seventh Seal. The addition of middle-class banality creates the illusion that Scenes is a straightforward television drama, but it also radically intersects with the film's thematic substance. The boring details of day-to-day life are the very things that have numbed Johan and Marianne to the predicament of their passionless marriage.
The film's heady passages are often delivered with a cold honesty that plays as artificial on the one hand, but also cruel in that surgically-precise way that only longtime intimates are capable of. And it's that very combination that proves so effective in selling the writing—one gets caught up in the episodes as if they're soap-opera melodrama, though they're not. Bergman's work is known for emotional restraint, and Scenes from a Marriage is no exception, but there's an underlying emotion in Ullman's and Josephson's performances that is powerful and evocative. For instance, when Johan first confesses he's taken a lover—a revelation that comes as a complete surprise to Marianne and the viewing audience—Marianne's initial reaction is so stoically detached it's unsettling. The couple's rational discussion of the affair and its consequences is bizarre on the one hand, but is also realistic because Ullman exudes the firmly controlled hysteria of a spouse in shock, and Josephson's utter honesty is clearly being wielded, at least in part, as a weapon against his spouse. Bergman's payoff is that when Marianne's histrionics finally begin at the end of the episode, they're not in direct response to her husband's affair but to the revelation that all of their friends knew about it long before she did.
Sven Nykvist's cinematography sports the unflinching close-ups that exemplify most of his work with Bergman in the 1960s and '70s (Persona, Shame, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers), and maximizes Ullman's and Josephson's skill in speaking with their eyes and faces. Since it was produced for television, Scenes from a Marriage was shot on 16mm, and Criterion's DVD transfer has the coarse-grained look inherent in the small film stock. According to the detailed liner notes, the transfer began with the original negative, and the image was spruced up digitally. Colors are well reproduced, fleshtones are accurate, and blacks are fully saturated for the most part. While the image lacks the detail of 35mm, it stands head-and-shoulders above video sources, and is a wonder when one considers the film was made for television broadcast more than 30 years ago. This assessment can be applied to both cuts of the film, by the way. One need not worry that the shorter theatrical cut has received less attention.
As one can imagine, the audio track for Scenes from a Marriage is uncomplicated since it's a dialogue-driven piece. The DVD presents a restored one-channel mono track that leaves nothing to complain about.
Supplements on the three-disc set are sparse, but that's all right—Scenes from a Marriage is a film about which too much can be said. Because it's a character-driven film about the texture of human intimacy, all the analysis in the world can't do it justice. It's best experienced subjectively. Each of the discs in the set does have an interview segment, however, and they're all excellent. Disc One has a segment with Ingmar Bergman, dating back to 1986. In it, the director mainly ruminates on the enormous popularity of the film in Scandinavia, but he also talks about Johan and Marianne as complex characters. Disc Two has an interview with Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, produced by the Criterion Collection specifically for this DVD release. The actors were interviewed separately—Ullman in English, and Josephson in Swedish—and their thoughts are arranged thematically, juxtaposing their answers to similar questions. Each talks about Bergman's directorial style; the script and how little was improvised (a shock considering the naturalism of their performances); the brief shooting time; the characters; and the film's success. Finally, Disc Three contains an interview with Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography and Swedish Cinema, from Ingeborg Holm to Fanny and Alexander. Cowie discusses Scenes from a Marriage's place in Bergman's cyclical career, as well as offering a detailed, episode-by-episode analysis of the differences between the 299-minute television cut and the 169-minute theatrical cut. The Bergman and Cowie interviews run approximately 15 minutes each, while the Ullman/Josephson piece clocks in at 25 minutes.
In addition to the interviews, writer and film scholar Phillip Lopate (Totally, Tenderly, Tragically) provides a concise but informative essay for the liner notes.
If you're a fan of the theatrical version of Scenes from a Marriage who has never had the opportunity to see the television version, this DVD is a must-own. Bergman's deeply intimate portrait of a disintegrating relationship is even richer and more satisfying in the longer telling.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Ingmar Bergman on Scenes from a Marriage
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.