For the first time in his career, Ingmar Bergman produced something that was a success in his home country. Critic Marc Gervais quotes a Swedish friend’s surprise to Bergman’s mini series: “I never thought he had it in him—all those heavy, metaphysical things—and now look, addressing us where we live, really in today’s world, our real problems, the way we feel. It’s extraordinary!“ And it is. (Extraordinary, that is.) Indeed, when Scenes From A Marriage first premiered, 26% of Sweden tuned in.
By the time it finished six weeks later, a whopping 40% of the country found themselves inviting Marianne and Johan into their homes on a weekly basis. In the year following, divorce rates in Sweden rose from 16,000 to +26,000. Given the already present, mid-to-late 19th century social evolutions, it is entirely plausible that this evidence can be more reasonably read as correlation as opposed to causation. However, at the very least one can say that this mini-series was dropped into this world that was more and more craving the raw, honest, and rebellious nature of Scenes.
Particularly in the United States, Bergman’s marriage drama drew similar praise internationally. For the Daily News, Rex Reed professed the film as being “one of the most important films I have ever experienced in my lifetime“; The New York Times writer, Vincent Canby proclaimed it to be “intensely, almost unbearably moving“; moreover Archer Winsten of the New York Post wrote “from now until eternity, the best, most penetrating, utterly fascinating movie ever made on the subject.“
Scenes is a 6 part mini-series that, over a period of roughly 10 years, a married couple wrestles with their life. They argue, fight, cheat, and eventually get divorced. The majority of the “plot“ happens between episodes, life changes like affairs, moving, new marriages, vacations, etc. As a result what the viewer gets to experience are these brief, yet immensely intimate sequences which are both psychologically provocative and dramatically powerful. Marianne and Johan meet up in the final episode, “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World“, to spend the night together in a friends cabin, unbeknownst to their new respective spouses. Scenes ends with the two embracing, lovingly in middle of the night, not knowing what love is or how exactly one lives love, but together.
Often having his films dismissed as “pretentious“, Bergman at this time in his career wanted to make a film for the “common man“. Without dispensing of the art of cinema, one sees this in the series’ theme as well as its formal and structural elements. Each episode takes place almost entirely in close up. Though never claustrophobic, the film is intensely intimate and emotionally relatable. Interestingly, the film was originally shot in 16 mm for television and then was blown up to 35 mm for its commercial release. As Lester J. Keyser notes, what this ends up accomplishing is,
a graininess that superficially recalls cinema-verite, but soon transcends it. Vincent Canby aptly compares the impression of these colored dots flecked with black to ‘a kind of pointillist’ effect. The intimate scenes Bergman limned for television come perilously close to portraiture on the big screen.
Admittedly this does seem at risk of making it sound as if Bergman worked in gimmickry. However, being a formal descendant of realism and naturalism, the ‘portraiture’ aesthetic of Scenes never comes across as concerned with pretension. Instead, every shot is loaded with emotional weight as a result of composition, lighting, performance, facial expression, etc. Once again, this is a film of the ‘real’ world, about ‘real‘ human problems. These are concrete, natural settings, locations, and interactions which evoke Bergman’s attempt at explicating his view of universal human struggles.
Bringing things back to the theory under-girding this “Communicating Bergman“ series, once again we are interested in how he attempted to analyze communication. In The Seventh Seal, Bergman was seeking communication with “Truth“/”God”/”objectivity”, in other words: epistemic certainty—the desire to know "for sure”, to make contact, to communicate. In Autumn Sonata, he sought to understand and explicate how two people—a mother and a daughter—attempted to navigate and communicate by means of excavating their personal history (i.e. their subjective and, at times, contradicting perspectives, memories, and feelings). And in The Hour of the Wolf, he sought to understand the self’s inability to make sense of and communicate with itself, eventually dissolving into madness.
The reason we at Cinema-Worcester decided to close out this series with Scenes From A Marriage is that it seems to us to be the the culmination of each and all of these ideas. Released in 1973, this comes towards the end of Bergman’s cinematic career and one continually sees him evolve. Ever in discussion with his own past ideas, Scenes lives in a world devoid of any connection to objectivity—the only connections to a deity or moral system are relegated to socio-contextual influences as opposed to metaphysical concepts: “I don’t imagine for one minute that I’ve touched on the truth about us. I don’t think there is such a thing as the truth.“ Most closely analogous to Autumn Sonata, Scenes is distinct both in the way in which it seeks to communicate—taking place over a period of years, the formal/structural strategies allow its characters to learn, develop, self-destruct, and evolve—and in the way in which it concludes how/if communication is a potentiality—Scenes concludes with a kind of connection, whereas Sonata concludes with a last gasp of (naive?) hope. Marianne and Johan end up with a type of contact that emphasizes the importance of flawed humans striving towards something together—”And I think I love you in my imperfect and rather selfish way. And at times I think you love me in your stormy, emotional way. In fact, I think that you and I love one another. In an earthly and imperfect way.” Additionally, it makes social and historical the psychological questions of self discovery found in The Hour of the Wolf. Instead of living in the semi-surreal, nightmarish world that is Wolf’s fever dream, Scenes pushes through these psychological problems by interacting with the 19th century—continually making the point that modern humanity does not seem to prioritize self-awareness, one of the key factors is human miscommunication:
J: We’re emotional illiterates. We’ve been taught about anatomy and farming methods in Africa. We’ve learned mathematical formulas by heart. But we haven’t been taught a thing about our souls. We’re tremendously ignorant about what makes people tick.
J: I’m trying to be as honest as I can, and it’s not exactly easy. We’ve never talked like this before. Is it any wonder we’re naive, insecure, and childish? What else could we expect?
These two beautifully rich and dynamic characters are adolescents really. They have not been taught the human soul, human psychology, human vulnerability and insecurity. Instead they play act through lives, rehearsing lines they’ve heard others say about how life is supposed to be lived. At times they say the “right“ things, and when they do they feel earnest in their desires:
M: We’re honest with each other, aren’t we?
J: I think so.
M: It’s not good to bottle things up. No matter how silly it is, it’s better to get it off your chest.
J: Of course it is.
But because of their callous and lazy ignorance they find themselves contradicting themselves at every turn. Later, after a very passive aggressive ‘semi-argument‘ concerning their dwindling sex-life, the episode ends with this exchange:
J: There there sweetheart, I shouldn’t have brought it up.
M: It’s possible to talk too much about these things, you know.
J: Yes, it is.
M: I know you should discuss everything and not keep secrets. But in this case I think it’s wrong.
J: I think you’re right.
M: Some matters should be protected from prying eyes.
J: You think so?
M: I’m sure of it. We hurt each other for no reason, and the barbs are still there when we go to bed. It’s like lying on a bed of nails.
The series is littered with these types of interactions. Johan constantly speaks, seemingly just to say something, only to undermine himself completely. During their discussion of their sex-life, he continually claims that it is not a big deal, that it shouldn’t be a big deal—”There’s a perfectly natural explanation”; ”Sex isn’t everything, after all…”; “It shouldn’t be a huge, overshadowing issue.“—yet, at every turn, he slips in his apparently real, un-edited opinions and desires—”It’s your mother’s fault, if you ask me, though you don’t like me saying so.”; “You just said you do your best…Can’t you hear how preposterous that sounds?“; “Can’t our poor sex life be spared your ambitions?“
Johan is unaware of his own thoughts and opinions. He speaks when he wishes whatever feeling he has at the moment. And then, when he encounters challenge and resistance he caves and decides the conversation is over—”By the way, I don’t mean any of this.”; “Let’s drop this and go to bed. It’s late.“; “There there sweetheart, I shouldn’t have brought it up.“; “All these words I’m spouting are just empty talk.“; “Do you think I’m talking rubbish? So do I, but who cares?” He is deeply insecure, fearful, worried, and lost. But the life he has been told he should live and who he should be in relation to that world is a constricting and claustrophobic presence.
Marianne, similarly is plagued by a lack of self-awareness, though partially for different reasons. During the sequence when she reads her diary, she begins:
M: Suddenly, I turned and looked at an old school picture…To my surprise i must admit that I don’t know who I am. I haven’t the vaguest idea. I’ve always done as I was told. As far as I can remember I’ve been obedient. Well adjusted, almost meek. I did assert myself once or twice as a girl, but Mother punished any lapses from convention with exemplary severity. My entire upbringing and that of my sisters, was aimed at making us agreeable.
Realizing that she was never given the space to be her own person, she realizes that she has become a product. A dissonant product full of an unconscious self and the cultural conventions of her time. In addition to this however, Marianne makes the connection to her husband, explaining their mutual inability to make contact with each other or anyone else:
M: We’re pitiful, self-indulgent cowards that can’t connect with reality and are ashamed of ourselves.
M: Sometimes it’s like husband and wife are talking on telephones that are out of order.
Moreover, we find the characters struggle with language. With words. How can words describe something as inarticulable as a feeling?: “Can you understand this bitterness? I can’t think of a better word than bitterness…I don’t understand any of this. I don’t understand this bitterness that just keeps on growing.“; How do you discuss what you can’t find words for?“
The one thing they do seem to possess confidence for is amusingly Socratic: confidence about their uncertainty even over their own ability to comprehend their own ignorance:
M: Are we living in utter confusion?
J: You and I?
M: No, all of us.
J: What do you mean?
M: I am talking about fear, uncertainty and ignorance. Do you think that secretly we’re afraid we’re slipping downhill and don’t know what to do?
J: Yes, I think so.
The mysterious, the magical, the miraculous idea that results from Scenes can be found in what I am arguing for is Bergman’s dialectic of communication: speak, misunderstand, speak, misunderstand less, etc. This dialectic is fully aware that it is a development towards the abyss. The acceptance that one cannot ever obtain full knowledge, full awareness, nor possess complete understanding. But the ostensible conclusion that Bergman highlights each step of the way is that the premise that one cannot communicate everything in no way implies that no one can communicate anything. Something—no matter how nebulous, enigmatic, or puzzling—is communicated. Perhaps it is simply the “feeling“.
J: I love you in my selfish way. And I think you love me in your fussy, pestering way. We love each other in an earthly and imperfect way…. But here I am, in the middle of the night, without much fanfare, in dark house somewhere in the world sitting with my arms around you. And your arms are around me…. I don’t know what my love looks like, and I can’t describe it. Most of the time I can’t feel it.
M: And you really think I love you too?
J: Yes, I do.
For Marianne and Johan, and for Bergman and his audience, it is this something, this potentiality that is the goal to be sought after, not an ending, of Bergman’s dialectic of communication. There are small moments in Bergman’s films that stand as the high points of these potentialities. They are few, yes. They are brief, yes. But they remain nonetheless. The Bergman chiaroscuro draws our eyes through all of the darkness, not for the sado-masochistic sake of the darkness, but to point towards that pinhole of light that is seemingly worth the struggle—only insofar as the struggle is undertaken can one potentially make contact with the ‘something’ nebulous.