The same year as Ingmar Bergman released his excellent Cries and Whispers he also ventured into television. His first miniseries attracted huge audiences in Sweden and inspired intense discussions. The following year, the episodes were edited into a 168 min. long feature intended for international audiences. Garnering great reviews, the miniseries was also shown in several countries. This was a structural solution that Bergman would return to; in 1976 and 1982, Face to Face and Fanny and Alexander would also be released as both a feature and a miniseries, for those who wanted to delve deeper into those particular stories.
When we first meet Marianne and Johan (Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson), they’re being interviewed by a magazine writer (Anita Wall) who’s doing a fluff piece on their marriage. The couple introduce themselves; he’s a 42-year-old psychologist, she’s a 35-year-old divorce lawyer, they’ve have been married for 10 years and have two kids. Some of the questions make them ill at ease and it’s clear that their opinions differ on some issues, which is no big deal. Especially not compared with the miserable marriage between two of their friends, Katarina and Peter (Bibi Andersson, Jan Malmsjö), whom they meet for dinner some time later.
The night ends with a drunken argument between Katarina and Peter that truly exposes the hatred between them. One day, Johan bluntly announces to Marianne that he’s in love with a much younger woman…
A feminist streak running through it
Bergman based his script on personal experiences, from his own failed marriages and that of his parents. One intriguing inspiration was his relationship with Ullmann, who as the chosen lead actress must have contributed in various ways with her own perspective. The director once said that the miniseries deals with ”Marianne’s liberation” and there is certainly a feminist streak running through the story, even if modern audiences might find many of its aspects a little cringe-worthy today. So much of it rings true now as well though.
The story follows Marianne and Johan over several years, through the ups and downs of their marriage, through separation and divorce, through encounters years later when they’re in new relationships. It’s easy to think that these two should have divorced quickly and then moved on. Marianne and Johan can’t quite let go; there is a strong bond between them. It is certainly for better and worse. One of their meetings ends in physical violence… but there’s also endless conversations between them that shows how they mature in some ways and get stuck in destructive patterns at other times. There is often brutal honesty, as they talk about sex and how they perceive each other and their new partners. No wonder that early 1970s audiences were mesmerized by something they had never seen before – the miniseries helped men and women dissect their own relationships with new eyes.
Ullmann and Josephson are amazing, especially the former whose character goes through many changes over time while Josephson’s fails to reach any deeper insights; this is not a very flattering portrait of manhood. Andersson and Malmsjö also shine in their brief interlude as the terrifyingly unhappy couple whose animosity is only made worse by a stiff cognac.
Everybody knows that Scenes From a Marriage inspired Woody Allen, but David Jacobs also borrowed from the miniseries when he created the long-running soap opera Knots Landing in 1979. After all, brutal honesty is the perfect lifeblood for a primetime soap.
Scenes From a Marriage 1973-Sweden. Made for TV. 281 min. Color. Produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Cast: Liv Ullmann (Marianne), Erland Josephson (Johan), Bibi Andersson (Katarina), Jan Malmsjö (Peter), Gunnel Lindblom, Anita Wall… Bertil Norström. Voice of Ingmar Bergman.
Trivia: Original title: Scener ur ett äktenskap. Originally shown in six episodes. Bergman can be heard as the voice of Wall’s photographer. Marianne and Johan, once again played by Ullmann and Josephson, were reunited in the TV movie Saraband (2003). Later a stage play.
Golden Globe: Best Foreign Film (the theatrical version).
Last word: “Johan and Marianne became very real, very quarrelsome even. They had a good deal on their minds, and this form (straightforward dialogue without cinematographic complications) gave them natural occasions to speak out. I also discovered something else: that I was somewhat at odds with Johan and Marianne on many points. Yet despite this I realised that they should be allowed to speak out, just so long as I had the chance, at the end of the sixth episode, to say something that was very important to me personally.” (Bergman, “Images”)