SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973)

(a “why can’t YOU be ME?” film review by Timothy J. Verret)

What happens in a marriage (or any meaningful relationship) when one person can’t be the other person? Resentment happens! Aggression happens! Rage happens! And yet what a fatalistic set-up, huh? Because the one person in a marriage (or any meaningful relationship) can NEVER be the other person. And how boring would it be if this could indeed happen? All of this gave Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, much to work with in his six-part miniseries for Swedish television, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, later widely released and condensed down to a nearly-three-hour motion picture. And if you are familiar with my HUGE adoration of Ingmar Bergman’s films and my previous film reviews I’ve written from this master filmmaker, you know, like Bergman himself, I will not hold back from “deep calls to deep” and make this review a “surface surgery.” No, indeed NOT, and speaking of “widely,” this film review will be a wide-excision biopsy!

Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) have been married for 20 years. He’s some kind of psychological researcher and she’s, ironically, a divorce lawyer. They’re BOTH amicable and pleasant and if they have flaws (hint, hint….they do), they wear them well. That is until, as mentioned, a wide-excision biopsy for BOTH of them is necessary to drain the pus of these flaws they can no longer hide. The pus of their flaws contain what most pus of flaws in a marriage (or any meaningful relationship) contain: Resentment, loneliness, rage, even perverseness, all stemming from “why can’t YOU be ME?” Once again, BOTH amicable and pleasant are Johan and Marianne, but amicability and pleasantries are hardly the stuff meaningful marriages and relationships are made of. If these kinds of marriages and relationships are to survive the trials, temptations and terrors that are absolutely inevitable for a greater meaning, yes, a wide-excision biopsy will be mandatory. And it has to be a wide-excision biopsy because, oh, how WIDE has the malignancy of resentment, loneliness, rage, even perverseness, spread in the relationship of Johan and Marianne! It’s eaten away tissues, bones, ligaments, and “settled the score” right dab in BOTH of their enraged and inflamed hearts. Even the widest-excision biopsy possible still might not cure their malignancy. In the case of Johan and Marianne from the beginning to the end of this film, I think it all came pretty close to a cure.

I admit it: For the most part, I’m “chicken” when it comes to meaningful relationships. I’m so afraid of the rejection possible and the hurt probable. Don’t get we wrong. I MOST DESPERATELY want meaningful relationships. In fact, I might even consider dying for them! I want the fights and the fury and the final flirt, the slamming of doors and the chasing after me when I end up in a closet, the playing and the pouting and the praying. I want it ALL! But I am just not that brave. But, oh, how brave is Bergman! In fact, there is not one single film director, living or dead, who is as brave as Bergman is! What makes Bergman so brave, I think, is he’s not afraid to be humiliated. From what I know about Bergman’s life, it’s probably because he was humiliated enough in his childhood to not fear humiliation all that much in his adult artistry. That, Bergman and I DO share! And Bergman is not afraid to have his film characters experience humiliation, as well. In fact, it’s their humiliation that leads to their emotional healing! It’s their vulnerability in the face of humiliation that leads to their souls’ healing. And when the wide-excision biopsy has been completed, it IS our souls’ healing that IS the only healing that matters from such a surgery. Bergman has BOTH Johan and Marianne humiliated enough to go right for the jugular! I know I’ve written this before in another review, but that scene when Johan and Marianne get into an actual physical altercation before signing the divorce papers is a film moment I won’t EVER forget! And who am I kidding? That wasn’t an altercation….that was a knock-down-drag-out fight! But how necessary was this because married couples or any couple in a meaningful relationship do this most of the time, even if they don’t actually physically do this most of the time. Depending on the level of sensitivity, and I can speak with authority on this one, even one hurtful word delivered to another in a meaningful relationship can feel just like a knock-down-drag-out fight! Maybe some even more sensitive than myself might feel just like a knock-down-drag-out fight because someone in the relationship forgot to set the alarm clock!

“Why can’t YOU be ME, Johan?” “Why can’t YOU be ME, Marianne?” This lies at the heart (or lack thereof) of all relationships that are fueled with resentment, fear, and aggression. I wonder if a wide-excision biopsy would be required and mandatory if, in all marriages and meaningful relationships, the running dialogue was, “I’ll let YOU be YOU; YOU let ME be ME.” It’s undoubtedly true that a whole lot of “mirroring” takes place in meaningful relationships, i.e., one sees him- or herself in the other person, but the understanding needs to be that it is JUST a mirror. Now, when one’s mirror is cracked and the one asks the other person to pick up the pieces of that broken mirror, that is MAJOR trouble! The broken-mirrored one can say all he or she wants to the other person, “YOU cracked MY mirror,” but that’s a lie! The other person didn’t crack the mirror; the one cracked the mirror him- or herself. No one has the power to crack another person’s mirror unless they let them crack it. And I know Bergman would love that I’m talking about mirrors, because mirrors are a constant representation in Bergman’s films. If there’s not a mirror hanging around on the set, you can bet Bergman is behind that camera and making that camera a mirror! And Bergman is so sly in how he does this! Bergman holds up a mirror to us all in his films and when he shows us something about ourselves we don’t like (and he’s done it to me countless times!), we can’t blame Bergman. Why? Because we can hear Bergman saying behind the camera, “Don’t blame me! I’m ONLY a mirror!”

I want to end this film review by mentioning something so endearing that happened today. After I watched this film, I turned on the TV to see what was on the Olympics. There was synchronized swimming, and I became mesmerized by this Russian female couple. If you don’t know much about synchronized swimming, the two must “mirror” each other’s movements above and under the water. This Russian couple was exceptional in this, and then I thought to myself, “That’s it! That’s what Johan and Marianne needed to do to save their marriage. Take a synchronized swimming class! If they had learned to ‘mirror’ their movements, that would have kept them in ‘sync!'” I just couldn’t pass up mentioning this.

7 thoughts on “SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973)

  1. Oh, what a brilliant essay. The way you put your words and expressions together just always strikes me as beautiful. Your thoughts, imagination all take me to a very happy place as a fellow creative writer myself. That final juxtaposition with the synchronized swimming bit was genius.

    God bless your words and boundless imagination that makes each essay a marvel of sensitivity and grace.

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    1. I haven’t watched SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE as it’s not available on YouTube or other streaming services but there’s an American miniseries coming up on HBO starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Issac. So I think you will definitely watch it.

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      1. Jessica Chastain is a great actress. I never heard of Oscar Issac. Is this HBO miniseries supposed to be a take on Bergman’s film? Just curious….

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      2. Oscar Issac is one really talented man. His work in such diverse films as STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, EX MACHINA, ANNIHILATION, DRIVE and OPERATION FINALE have been enjoyed by me. Each work covers the gamut from fantasy, science-fiction drama, neo-noir to an anti-Nazi hunt story culled from real life respectively. Jessica and he were cast together in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR too few years ago. So I think you will really appreciate his work on this particular series.

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    2. Thank you SO much, P.J. (“huckleberry friend”). I really loved, as well, that synchronized swimming juxtaposition. It brought me a much-needed chuckle after feeling “worn out” after watching SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. I always feel SO blessed when I have these kind of discoveries.

      Love and blessings always, you “huckleberry friend,”
      Timothy (Mr. T or Comrade T or BOTH)😂

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  2. Once I’m out of quarantine, P.J., my vote is we watch it over at your place. I’ll spring for the popcorn 🍿😂

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