Scenes From a Marriage chronicles the marriage of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullman), a couple happily married for ten years that sees their marriage disintegrate over the next decade. Over the course of the nearly six-hour miniseries, Bergman peels away the layers of this couple until we see them for who they are – profoundly imperfect human beings whose deepest desire is to love and be loved by another. They lie, manipulate each other, and put on masks to cover their true feelings. Yet as they move closer to divorce, that is all pushed aside in a raw and troubling climax.This is my eighth Bergman film, and while I am by no means done with his work, I finally feel like I’m getting a footing with him. Technically, the films are often simple, but expertly done, whether it be the placement of the camera, the abrupt change of scene, or the use of sound. Bergman uses all the elements to his advantage in evoking the kind of mood and feeling for which he is aiming. In terms of writing, he can tell simple stories that bring the viewers into dialogue with many of the great questions of human existence: What do we have to look forward to beyond the grave? What does it mean to be human? What is love, and can it be attained? How does overcome or live in the knowledge of their guilt? What does it mean to believe, and how can it be done? What is it that all people seek? Questions like these and others run all through his work. It is these elements that draw me to his work: a fascination with those kinds of questions and a desire to see artistic excellence on display.
And while Bergman’s answers are not always wholly satisfying, I still appreciate much of the tension he raises with his answers. We are confronted with this at the conclusion of Scenes from a Marriage. Both Johan and Marianne have suffered, come through the suffering, and have some heightened sense of themselves and who they are as individuals. They are then able to accept one another for who they are, as imperfect people who love imperfectly. There’s something about this that rings so true – it gets at the heart of what it means to love and be loved by another. We love in spite of our imperfections, and in spite of the imperfections of those who mean to love us. I am not confident I or anyone else in this world will ever attain the level of loving another truly in this life. We love in our imperfect ways, and those we love put up with our imperfections.
All this leads us back to a comment Marianne makes in the interview that begins the film. When asked to define love, Marianne hesitates, but then offers 1 Corinthians 13 as the pinnacle. Yet even then she recognizes that she cannot attain such a love, deciding that kindness, affection, tolerance, and a sense of humor can be combined to take the place of love. It’s no wonder that she and Johan couldn’t remain married. Neither of them were even pursuing the ideal, but had instead given up on it for something lesser. Yet even still, with maybe a supreme act of grace, they end up declaring their imperfect love for each other. This is a film about the terrifying death of a marriage, and its rebirth as something new and different.