Scenes From a Marriage

Year: 1973. Running time: 299 minutes. Color. Directed by Ingmar Berman. Starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. In Swedish with optional English subtitles. Mono. DVD release by The Criterion Collection.

Review by David Gurevich

Ingmar Bergman: no other European director's name is as closely associated with art-house snobbery in America. It's like a litmus test: "Tell me what you think of Bergman, and I'll know how sophisticated you are." Bergman's films vary in accessibility, but it was just his bad luck that the '60s, when auteur films swept American art houses, caught him at his darkest mood. From The Seventh Seal to Through a Glass Darkly to Winter Light to Silence — you just had to be a very seriously depressed young person to take in so much pain and suffering on a bleak black-and-white screen. You wouldn't know it was the same guy who only a couple of years earlier had directed a delightful sex comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night.

Now, it seems that by 1972 Mr. Bergman had grown quite tired of being depressed (and, more prosaically, so had his bankers), and so he went ahead and did the unthinkable — he made a six-part miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage, that became so popular that allegedly streets emptied all over Scandinavia on the nights it aired. (I realize this line is ripe to be joke material.) But this accessibility was denied the US audiences: local programming honchos were aghast at the thought that their viewers would be subjected to reading subtitles on six consecutive weeks. (Much later, the innovative PBS programmer Andrea Traubner found a slot at a safe remove from pledge weeks and bought the series for Channel 13 in New York.) And so Bergman had to recut the five-hour-long six-episode series (at least he got to do it himself) into a three-hour theatrical version. Another art-house movie, and, yes, watching this intense War of the Sexes, mostly in close-ups, accompanied by straight-from-the-couch dialogue, for three hours straight… once again, a lot of people emerged from the theater happy to be alive.

The Criterion Collection's just-issued DVD version of Scenes from a Marriage is scrupulous to a fault: there are two discs with the TV version and a third one with the theatrical version. The latter contains a detailed play-by-play comparison of the two versions. Somewhere towards the end of this 15-minute scholarly analysis British critic Peter Cowie finds one example of how the cutting improved on the TV version. One. Nuff said? Skip the third disc.

Watching the up-and-down-and-up-again story of Marianne and Johan in six 50-minute episodes makes you appreciate what an accessible filmmaker Bergman really is, and at the same time ponder the distance Western society has traveled in the 30 years since the series was made. It is easy to see why Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians were glued to screens in 1972: not since Ibsen's A Doll's House had a happy prosperous Scandinavian couple been dissected with so much intelligence and even humor (yes, there are quite a few light-hearted moments, including the ironic credits, and Erland Josephson's delivery as the husband is impeccable). The ending, where the once-happy-and-then-miserable family find each other once again in a blissful relationship as they are cheating on their new respective spouses, had to be positively scandalous. In the year 2004, however, Marianne's struggle to get away from the society-imposed stereotypes and lead her own life is passé as a subject even for slick women's magazine covers, and so are Johan's caddishness and egoism. A viewer expecting revelations in that department should not bother.

What we can do now is set aside the social shock value and enjoy the film for its cinematic values, which are plentiful. You can't do too much stripping with the dialogue, of course, much of which sounds like so many marriage-counseling sessions; but Bergman's perennial cameraman Sven Nykvist is in top form here, his camera always probing, the lighting constantly re-adjusted to create another parallel story by itself; and the acting of two highly intelligent and attractive leads, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, just doesn't get any better — and they have to do a lot of acting here because about 80% of the scenes are one-on-one, with plenty of close-ups. It is heartbreaking and ultimately fascinating to watch Ullmann's Marianne's ordeals as she travels across life's minefield, from a humble social wife (already a divorce lawyer herself, which says a lot both about the non-combative nature of Swedish litigation and the degree of her self-effacement) to a full-fledged person. It is equally touching to watch as Josephson's Johan's narcissism unravels and gives room to the quiet despair of late middle age. It's all there: love and hate, intimacy and distancing, romantics and common sense. You can find all of these in your own relationship — although, having seen this film, you might choose not to look.

In filming Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman managed to pull a real coup by lending a cineaste's mastery to urgent social issues — and saying something wise and important about the human condition as well. This is a lesson that far too many modern filmmakers neglect to learn.

Scenes From a Marriage is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound. The three-disc set includes both the television version and the theatrical version. Special features: comparison by scholar Peter Cowie of the differences between the television and theatrial version; an exclsive new video interview with stars Liv Ullmann and erland Josephson; and a video interview with Ingmar Bergman. Suggested retail price: $49.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.