A Constant Snuggle
Scenes From A Marriage: Six Dialogues for Television by Ingmar Bergman Bantam Books, 212 pages, $1.95
ENDING A MARRIAGE makes people reborn--but only in a tenuous way, Ingmar Bergman seems to say in his movie made for Swedish TV. At the end of the movie, years after their divorce, Bergman's characters Marianne and Johan have each remarried and smoothed out their lives enough to have a new affair with each other. Marianne, originally a paradox-woman whose ability as a divorce lawyer and counselor can't hide her personal inability to see the inconsistencies in herself and her marriage, has emerged from the trauma that surrounded her life from the time Johan left her. She questions more, she likes sex more--these are the modern cliches for the bourgeois woman reforged and baptized by divorce--but something subtler has changed, she seems looser when she talks, when she smiles she seems to smile at herself, not just her lover.
The trouble is, she thinks she has her freedom, but she's deceiving herself again, as surely as when, seven years before, at the start of the movie, she thought her marriage with Johan was going smoothly because "we talk everything over and we understand each other instantly"--right before Johan came home one night to say he was in love with another woman and would Marianne please get him up in time in the morning so he could go off with Paula and maybe never come back.
By the time the two start their new affair, Marianne's own string of affairs as a single and then as a remarried woman has dried out her tears, and this more confident Marianne at the end of the film is convincing enough in terms of the emotion. Liv Ullman, playing Marianne, makes those little smiles tell; by the end her eyes proclaim her self-respect. But, despite what she thinks, her sensibility is little changed. Her marriage by the conventions didn't work, and her new life is new convention based on socially certified licentiousness. Formed from the same society that molded her marriage, Marianne's new style of freedom can't redefine the roles of women and men. She's happy, in a way, like a new bride entering a locked-up marriage of housework and kids and pain and a few hard fucks, so expectant that she never hears the door click shut. From any stultification, some discontent must grow.
Marianne's romantic illusions hinge on her idea of straight talk. In her marriage at the start of the film, she thinks it comes from fidelity: commitment breeds honesty. But when Johan ups and goes it's clear any commitment there was had bred nothing. For her affair by the new rules with her ex-husband, at the end of the film, she has a new line: "telling the truth now...because we make no demands." Her myth is that if only people didn't talk in a babel of lies they would love in a smooth, enduring way. But beyond commitment and non-commitment she can't think of any reasons why people can't talk things out. Her myth is a more select version of what too many say: If only people understood each other they could live in peace and harmony.
Johan (Erland Josephson) is a somewhat less carefully developed example of this reactionary rarely-think conformism. He runs with no warning to Paris with his young girlfriend. In the affair with ex-wife Marianne at the end, she's embarrassed by the memories their old bed evokes. He snickeringly calls a friend to borrow his cottage for "a rather delicate matter--she's very pretty, let me tell you." Yet he thinks he's changed, grown away from his excess aspirations, learned when to lie and when to be candid with his lovers.
BERGMAN SAYS he had to experience the things in this film before he could write it, and since his own life is a sort of precursor to the unconventional convention people in the U.S. called the sexual revolution, it is hardly surprising that his portrait of marriage in our society, stripped down, gives a picture of separation and rebirth no more credible than a modern mate-swapper's claim of rebirth in the space of an evening. The changes the characters ascribe to themselves are not born out by the facts--they still talk about each other in the same self-centered way.
But, like the swinger, they believe in the changes they see and feel, however facile and temporary they may be. For the first time in years, Bergman is dealing with the specifics of modern society. When love breaks down the modern institutions are the primary cause; the incorporeal concerns Bergman can usually convey are absent. So this film brings forward no sense of awe. The spiritual sense is cut out from underneath--what's left are the rocky, excessive emotions bred by the petty, inchoate sexual relations of a sexually and politically unequal society. Bergman has never isolated these passions before. For the past two decades the characters in his movies have been searching for something beyond middle-class love--thus the brooding solemnity of so many of them--but Marianne and Johan can envision nothing more. Scenes From A Marriage is closer to more of life for more of us, so its little nips of recognition are more frequent and less profound than in Bergman's other movies: thus the frequent claim, already made by both critics and promoters, that it is his most accessible film by far.
The movie churns the viscera more than it should, forcing its jittery nerves into contact with whatever we're most on end about ourselves. A look at the published screenplay makes it harder to see why this should be. The book's dialogue is filled with petty details that never add up to reasons to act, terrors are pointed out in the stage directions, but except when Johan first leaves Marianne the passions are too strong for what's happening. The screenplay seems just good enough to make small, slippery claims on the audience's emotion; of course, it does much more. Partly, this happens because of the unusual rapport between Bergman and his actors, particularly Liv Ullman. It seems as if her emotions would be moving even if grounded in nothing at all. Sven Nykvist's photography, that normally adds so much to the metaphysical quality of Bergman's moods, is simplified in this film for the small TV screen. The TV close-ups bring the film even closer to the everyday passions of home.
But another factor is the open-endedness caused by cutting the movie from 300 minutes of Swedish TV to three hours for U.S. theaters. Bergman made all the cuts himself, dropping most of the minor characters--even the pair's children--and cutting references to them in other places. The film, as cut, is all of one piece, but it leaves out so much that it isn't the same work. It seems, from the published screenplay, that the film he released is like a violent sketch for a larger, more detailed painting that would lose sensation because it covered too much. Enough is left out of the U.S. version that, confronted with convincing passions on the screen, the viewer is forced to fill out the details from his own life.
ENDING OUR MARRIAGES makes us reborn, Bergman seems to say, and he may be edging near the truth. The marriage he shows came from a social base where everything worked against it, and the new lives of the reawakened partners seem no more fulfilling. But if Marianne and Johan have even a slightly better idea of what went wrong, they may pass on that little bit of wisdom--speeding the apocalyptic day when love won't conquer anyone but will make peace with all, in an age of sense and reason and sexual equality. But it's not even clear that the pair has gone anywhere at all. Any real hope we find in this film comes from ourselves, or perhaps from the little bit of illumination Bergman brings to the paradoxes of successive love affairs. How being cast off might give time to reflect and start again, even while reflection on what went wrong makes the rejection impossible to accept. How a new love affair might graft onto the nearly dead roots of the old love, destroying the chances for a clean break.