Dir: Ingmar Bergman ( The Virgin Spring ; Cries and Whispers ; Fanny and Alexander ; Wild Strawberries )
On its face, this movie should be very, very boring. It is a six part miniseries examing the contours of one marriage. The film almost exclusively features two people talking in a room, forty minute conversations shot largely in close-ups. It reads like a five and half hour play all about one subject, with just two actors. Pulling that off requires an unbelievebale script and incredibly nuanced acting.
Blissfully, Scenes from a Marriage has both. As a result, it is a stunning, thought provoking, challenging and brilliant work from one of the great artistic minds of any time period. Bergman has taken the risk of stripping his film of all movement, all of the heavy symbolism that made his others so dense, no plot points or external events that come in to provide somewhere for the story to go. This is just a married couple talking.
But oh what they say! The early episodes involve the performance of what seems to be a cheerful, model relationship. But when the husband announces out of the blue that he is leaving his wife for another woman, the hidden suffering of both slowly emerges. In a less ambitious film, many of these complex emotions would be articulated in one big scene, with lots of crying and throwing things around; seven minutes and then we move on to something else. But Bergman has here devoted huge swaths of time to the reactions of his characters, allowing their ideas to come to the surface over thirty minutes, and across entire episodes. The scene where Marianne first learns of the breakup is a case in point. She is dumbfounded, unable to react. For the entire episode she struggles with what to say, only breaking down the next morning as Johan is heading out the door. It a a brilliant commitment to genuine emotional reactions at moments when we literally "don't know how to react", impossible to describe here. It is almost inconceivable how you act that sort of subtle moment.
And the acting from these two giants of Swedish cinema is always up to the task. Erland Josephson is diabolic and charming as the philandering and selfish Johan. But Liv Ullman is an absolute miracle as Marianne, who uses her pain to grow and discover herself. Her transformation is mercurial, and is another testament to Bergman's tremendous ability to write parts for women. Ullman's journey from emotional repression to genuine (if limited) liberation is also one of the most compelling feminist narratives I have ever seen. Sex is a constant theme of their conversations, and using it not as a tool of power but instead as personal self expression is handled here better than I have ever seen it done.
All of this is a consequence of the freedom Bergman enjoyed for this Swedish television production. I cannot imagine even Spielberg going to NBC and pitching five hours of two people talking about their sex lives in a room. But the low budget and the willingness of the actors to pariticipate, somehow got this film made. There is shorter, theatrical version out there, but I would dissuade you from it. This is not the sort of thing you tighten up, because it is in its extention that its genius lies.
The movie is very difficult to watch. The characters are so honest, and express the modern condition so well, that you will find yourself questioning your own life and your own happiness. But it is also essential. When true talent comes together, and all other considerations are removed but commitment to art, truly magical things can be produced. I find Scenes from a Marriage to be such a document.