SCENER UR ETT ÄKTENSAP (1973)

  • Director: Ingmar Bergman       
  • Writer: Ingmar Bergman
  • Starring: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Bibi Andersson, and Jan Malmsjö
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on YouTube and Apple TV

The current HBO prestige limited series is Scenes from a Marriage, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as the titular married couple. The miniseries itself has received mixed-to-decent reviews. One I heard on NPR said, “If you’re in it mostly for the acting, you’ll probably get something out of it.” I actually wonder these days how many people watching the new series realize it’s actually a remake of a 1970s TV miniseries called Scener ur ett Äktenskap, directed by none other than Ingmar Bergman and starring Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann. I’m told the HBO version follows at least the structure of the original Swedish miniseries, if not the specifics.

This is a movie blog, so I didn’t go all the way through the original Bergman miniseries, as interesting as that might have been. But there was another option, because in 1973, no American TV network was going to run a subtitled series, no matter how much acclaim it had in Europe. So Bergman re-edited the series into a 2 hour and 40 minute feature. This generated enough buzz to win the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Golden Globes, though the Oscars (controversially) declared it ineligible because it had been shown on TV before theaters (a rule that remained in effect until last year, when it was temporarily suspended due to the pandemic). So I checked that out. It is still separated into various “episodes,” each of which is sort of its own thing. Actually, for a cut-down TV series that’s mostly two people in a room having marital troubles, I found it much more interesting than I was expecting.

In the first section, our main couple (Marianne and Johan) has dinner with friends (the wife is played by Bibi Andersson, a Bergman mainstay who held down another of his two-handers with Ullmann, Persona). They other couple has a very public breakdown during dinner and openly discusses their miserable relationship, leading to a great deal of awkwardness. In the second section, they have a fairly banal dinner with Johan’s parents, then go back home and have an extended discussion about how banal their sex life as become. I was sort of expecting this to be how the whole thing was going to be, but then in the third episode, Johan suddenly reveals that he’s in love with another woman, named Paula, and that he’s leaving Marianne and their two daughters in the morning (the kids are in exactly one scene of the movie version, though I’m told they’re in the tv series more).

What makes these scenes more interesting is that, for most of it, Marianne’s reaction is more of shock than anger. After initially marveling that she didn’t suspect anything, she spends the evening fussing over which suits or sweaters he should take with him, how early he will need to get up, and even trying to get him to make love to her “for old times’ sake.” It’s a take on the dissolution of a marriage that feels very fresh but probably reflects a lot of people’s actual experiences. Only when he’s about to leave does she break down, pathetically begging him to stay. In the fourth section, Johan stays overnight with Marianne while visiting Stockholm on business, apparently the first time they’ve seen each other since he left. They are remarkably cordial with each other, and she spends a while discussing the progress she thinks she’s made in therapy. Johan then reveals that he’s taking a job in America (to my great amusement, at Cleveland State University, of all places). He seems to expect her to freak out, and seems disappointed that she seems entirely fine with this.

In the fifth, and perhaps most “stereotypical” episode, Marianne and Johan meet to finalize their divorce, and soon start fighting over the specifics of their property and how to bring up their daughters. Marianne has a new partner (like Paula, never seen), and tells Johan their sex life is great. They start shouting at each other about how much they hate each other, which soon escalates into physical violence. As she matter-of-factly decides she has to go to the bathroom to wipe blood off her face, he sadly signs the divorce papers. In contrast, the last episode is the two of them, 20 years later, having an affair on their respective partners in Johan’s “country cottage” (I kind of get the sense that in Sweden a much larger percentage of the population has somewhere like this than in America). Despite their renewed sexual connection, she has a nightmare that she’s “never loved or been loved.” He reassures her that they at least “had an imperfect love,” and the movie ends.

So one thing I found really interesting about Scener ur ett Äktenskap is that the dissolution of this marriage happens well before the halfway point, and the rest of the movie is how these two people relate to each other with all of that history between them. At that point, they run the full gamut from openly trying to punch each other to wistfully wishing for the good old days. Because of the length, the time given to developing these very specific characters, and these two really good performances, the movie is able to examine more aspects of these people and their relationship than any other movie on this sort of subject that I’ve seen.

Given how much all this feels like a stage play pretty much all the way through, I do think Bergman brings quite a bit to the proceedings as a director, if subtly. He spends much of the movie in extreme close-ups on the faces of his two actors, almost studying them. He does this even when almost no other movie would, where the characters are physically doing something off screen. He holds one side of a conversation on one character’s face, while the other person responds from off-screen for what feels like a few minutes. Going along with this, in several scenes where a character picks something up off a table or something like that, rather than doing an insert shot Bergman starts the shot on the table and, after the character touches the item, he does a quick whip pan back up to a close-up on their face. He wants to stay really intimate with his characters even when they’re taking specific physical actions that most other movies would concentrate on.

I think that the current remake’s necessity is, um, debateable, as I would say for most remakes these days. But though many of my fellow Millennials might not have heard of Scener ur ett Äktenskap, it certainly has had a legacy for many movies since. Perhaps the most obvious influence from the past few years would be Marriage Story, which is also mostly a movie about the complex relationship between a former married couple who has already broken up. Director Richard Linklater and his star, Ethan Hawke, have stated that their cult-favorite Before trilogy “should be measured by” Scener ur ett Äktenskap, a statement that makes sense considering that all three movies are basically the primary couple having long, real-time conversations. Multiple Woody Allen movies also likely merit direct comparisons to this film. In any case, I would certainly recommend the original Scener ur ett Äktenskap either if my article here makes it sound interesting to you, or if are enjoying the new HBO Scenes from a Marriage (I did just learn that it has Oscar Isaac full frontal nudity, which might be enough for several people I know to check it out). The performances are great, but I think you’ll get something out of it even if you’re not “there for the acting.”

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