Scenes from a marriage – Know thyself   Leave a comment

Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a marriage)
Country: Sweden
Writer/Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Bibi Anderson, Jan Malmsjö
Run time: 167 mins

The cinema is not a craft. It is an art. It does not mean team-work. One is always alone; on the set as before the blank page. And for Bergman, to be alone means to ask questions. And to make films means to answer them. Nothing could be more classically romantic.” – Jean-Luc Godard

How would you describe Scenes from a marriage in a few words? I really dunno where to begin with, because I’ve been completely lost in conversation with myself, even when I take the bus; pay attention to Chennai express’s OST, or at work – preparing, deriving a work-load profile for EDI architecture or when speaking with someone, about football, Ashes, or the mundane things, the elegant yet brutal observations of the movie are jogging at the back of head and just simply cannot stop it enveloping, the need for greater clarity.

The movie imposes a stark simplicity that sheds light on fundamental, abysmal humane countenance, plus there are no grappling metaphysical questions, no thematic evaluations on god, religion, it’s just a walk-through on basic human conundrum of relationships, on mysterious things which we customarily acquiesce.

According to Bergman himself, Scenes from a Marriage deals with: “the absolute fact that the bourgeois ideal of security corrupts people’s emotional lives, undermines them, and frightens them and allows themselves to be brave, cowardly, happy, sad, angry, loving, confused, uncertain, satisfied, cunning, unpleasant, childish, mean, unfathomable, magnificent, petty, physically affectionate, heartless, stupid, wretched, helpless: in a nutshell – typical human beings”.


Originally made as a TV series, response to Scenes from a Marriage was really huge. Accordingly, it generated a lot of interest, this allowed public to talk about their experiences openly and divorces increased, such was its impact! And Bergman was forced to go ex-directory to avoid telephone calls from strangers wanting to discuss their marriage with him and the marriage guidance service saw a huge increase in its number of clients. :)

The movie is divided into six different episodes or ‘scenes’ as it is put, a brutally honest evolutionarily portrayal of marriage between its main protagonists; Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann).
1) Innocence and Panic
2) The Art of Sweeping things under the Rug
3) Paula
4) The Vale of Tears
5) The Illiterates
6) In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World

Innocence and Panic
A magazine reporter interviews Johan and Marianne, asks questions and invigorates them to describe themselves and their 10 years of conjugal bliss, to which Johan illustrates himself fully on glowing terms, where as, Marianne (her eyes, blue as an old folk song, are lit up from within) compassionately expresses her outlook towards life. Johan is 42 and is an associate professor at the Institute of Psycho-technology and Marianne 35, works as a marriage counselor. They talk about how they met, how they fell in love and how they eventually got married. They both are seen as an ideal couple, have two wonderful daughters, have good jobs, never had material worries, and they are in good terms with friends, relations on both sides. Although they have differences, just like other people, they agree on all the key issues.

To celebrate their 10th anniversary, they have invited another couple, Katarina (Bibi Anderson) and Peter (Jan Malmsjö) for dinner, who envy them and jeeringly describe that they would like to stick a pin into their beautiful balloon. Consequently, they humiliate each other and seek guidance from Marianne to file their divorce. Here, Bibi Anderson is brilliantly amazing, after Persona, I had never witnessed such an intense performance and the scene that is by far, one of the most appalling exchange of words that I have ever come across.

In regard with marriage, Marianne and Johan mull over the possibility, probability for a couple to be partners for life. Johan pronounces marriage should be of renewable 5 year contract and they both conclude that Katarina and Peter go through hell because they don’t communicate and they have to translate everything they mean into a common language.

Marianne to Johan: “Sometimes it’s as if the couples are talking on bad telephone lines. Sometimes it’s like listening to two pre-programmed tape recorders and sometimes it’s the utter silence of outer space. I don’t know which is the worst. I don’t know…”

The Art of Sweeping things under the Rug
Marianne and Johan equally loathe their obligation of having Sunday dinner with their parents, they call it absurd because their life is mapped out and they think every last second is accounted for and they fall short in process of subjugating their respective mothers due to societal pressure.

Meanwhile back at work, Johan flirts with his college friend who openly criticizes his poetry, calling it mediocre, insipid, neat, puerile, because she and her friends envied, believed that he was destined for greatness. Johan is offended by her remarks and stops flirting.

Whereas, Marianne meets her client: A housewife who is longing for a divorce after more than 20 years of marriage. The conversation is of low-tone yet mind-bogglingly cold!! Some excerpts:

Marianne: Why do you want a divorce?
Housewife: It’s a loveless marriage.
Marianne: Is that your reason?
Housewife: Yes.
Marianne: Has it always been like this?
Housewife: Yes, for the full 20 years.
Marianne: But now you want to break away.
Housewife: Yes. My husband is a responsible man. He’s kind and conscientious. He’s been an excellent father. We’ve never quarreled. We have a nice apartment and a house in the country. We’re both fond of music. But there’s no love between us, there never has been.
Marianne: Forgive me for asking, but have you met someone?
Housewife: No, I haven’t.
Marianne: What about your husband?
Housewife: Not as far as I know.
Housewife: He keeps asking me what is wrong with our marriage. I tell him I can’t go on in a relationship that lacks love. Then he asks what this love is supposed to consist of. But I can’t describe something that doesn’t exist.
Marianne: Have you been on good terms with your children?
Housewife:  I’ve never loved my children. I know that now… I used to think I did. People do. But I know now that I never loved them. I know just what you’re thinking: She’s been overindulged and has no sense of humor. She has all she could ever want, but still she moans about love. There are other qualities like friendship, loyalty, security… Something like that, yes.
Housewife: Let me tell you something. I have a mental image of myself, which doesn’t correspond to reality.
Marianne: Forgive a personal question… Isn’t it so that love…
Housewife: I have the capacity to love. But it’s all been… bottled up. The life I’ve led has stifled my potential. The time has come to change that. The first step is divorce. My husband and I block each other in some deadly way.
Marianne: That sounds frightening.
Housewife: It is frightening.
Housewife: Something peculiar is happening. My senses, sight, hearing, touch are starting to fail me. This table, for instance, I can see it and touch it… But the sensation is diminished and dry. Do you understand?
Marianne: I think I do.
Housewife: It’s the same with everything – music, scents, faces and voices. Everything seems… puny, grey and undignified.

Pfft! Encompassing subtle movements and by being ‘brutally honest’, It felt so liberated just to watch the up-close long-take facial close-ups! It was such a treat!!

Back at home, Marianne and Johan talk about their sex life and how married people lose interest in each other, apparently owing to the life which is full of evasions. Marianne expresses her inability to enjoy it as much as she was used to and also asks Johan to find a mistress. Johan shoots back at her saying that she is making things complicated because he believes sex is pretty elementary stuff and has become a sore spot. Marianne too, asserts her stance by indicating that he attacks her for not trying and later for making the effort. They hurt each other to no end and the barbs still remain even when they go to bed. Finally, they comfort each other by accepting their own disagreements.


Marianne: You’ve been unbelievably tactless.
Johan: I apologize.
Marianne: Don’t I give you enough affection?
Johan: Affection takes time.
Marianne: Then you don’t get enough.
Johan: We don’t, or give enough either.
Marianne: That’s why I wanted us to go away this summer.
Johan: Affection shouldn’t be kept for vacations.
Marianne: You’re nice, even if you are a moron.
Johan: Lucky I’m married to you.
Marianne: You’re mediocre, but you have your moments of greatness.
Johan: At our age, thousands of brain cells burn out every day. Never to be replaced…
Marianne: You must lose a million!
Johan: You’re awfully sweet anyway, even if you do scold and fuss.

This piece is just brilliantly filmed; the Stoic tone in which it is perceived and propagated to the audience, both in natural and human form is simply outstanding!!

Marianne exuberantly prepares dinner for exhausted Johan who has just arrived from work, she is apologetic for being a beast on the phone and ponders over on why do they grudge themselves over the good things in life?

Johan drops a bomb and tells her that he’s gone fallen in love with an interpreter named: Paula, whom he met her at a conference. Furthermore, he explains that he does not have any idea what it will lead to and he’s bewildered. However, on some level he’s happy and he wants to make a clean break, intends to accompany her to Paris, stay away for at least seven or eight months.

Marianne is dumbstruck when Johan says he was planning to leave since four years! The reason that he states is that he was fed up with all the caring about what they weren’t expected to do and the people they had to accommodate, whichever way he turned, it only impaired him.

Marianne begs him not to leave and asks him to provide a chance, believes that they can save their marriage by making a fresh start. She asks about Paula and volunteers herself to meet and talk with her; because she believes Paula can understand her ordeal. Johan pulls his wallet, shows her photo and explains to her that she is just 23, and further conveys that she’s been engaged twice , hasn’t been lucky in love. She has had lots of affairs due to which he suffers from retrospective jealousy, detests her frankness because she insists on giving him the details of her erotic past.

Johan: She has no illusions and she has no great hopes for the two of us. She knows I’ll go back to you. It all sounds like a hackneyed old melodrama.
Marianne: Are you compatible in bed?
Johan: Yes, we are, actually. At first it was all wrong. I wasn’t used to it – being with other women, I mean.
Johan: We’ve spoiled each other, you and I, living in a bubble of our own. Everything’s gone like clockwork. The lack of oxygen smothered us.
Marianne: And Paula will revive you?
Johan: I have little self-awareness. I know little of reality, regardless of all the books I’ve read, but this may be an opportunity for you and I to really live.
Marianne: Has Paula filled your head with rubbish like that?
Johan: Just how naive can you get? We can do without your taunts.
Marianne: Forgive me.
Johan: I’m trying… I’m trying to be honest and it’s not easy! We’ve never talked like this before. Is it any wonder we’re naive? What else can we expect?
Marianne: You’re in a tight spot.

Next Day, Marianne makes her last effort to bring back Johan by expressing that she would throw out stale old routines, pledges that he will never hear her blame him. At the same time, expresses her anguish for shutting her out without any hope. Johan unreservedly leaves Marianne for Paula. Then, Marianne immediately phones Fredrik/Birgit(common friends) so that they both can convince Johan but she is extremely horrified when she learns that they knew about the affair beforehand.

The Vale of Tears
Johan has been offered a chair at Cleveland University (US) and visits Marianne to discuss about their divorce. In reality think about each other the entire time wondering if they are lonely or afraid. At dinner, Johan has got his eyes fixated on Marianne who’s looking voluptuous; he wants to have sex but Marianne wants him to take an interest in her soul, pay heed to sincere reflections.

Marianne thinks she is a masochist; she can’t bear the experience of Johan making love to her because she feels that it would leave her devastated. Later, she straightforwardly orders him to leave her house if he persists.

Johan clams himself and asks her to read to him about the stuff that she has jotted down, Her Monologue:

I turned and looked at the photo of my class at school, taken when I was 10. I seemed to detect something that had eluded me previously. To my surprise, I must admit, I don’t know who I am. Not at all… 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 all such lapses from convention with exemplary severity.

My entire upbringing was aimed at making me agreeable. I was ugly and graceless. A fact I was constantly reminded of. But if I kept my thoughts to myself and was ingratiating, my behavior yielded rewards. The real deception began at puberty. My every thought revolved around sex. But this I never told my parents or anyone at all, for that matter.

Being deceitful and secretive became second nature to me. My father wanted me to become a lawyer like himself. I said I wanted to be an actress, or do something else within the theatrical world, but they laughed at me. Since then I go on pretending. A sham in my relations to others. To men. The same sham – a desperate attempt to please. I’ve never considered what I want without hurting each other.”

Just WOW! The monologue’s constructed on a Montage of still images of baby-to-adolescent Marianne, which perhaps supersedes her ungraspable emotional essence.


The Illiterates
Marianne and Johan are living apart for ages but their feelings of guilt linger on. They both discuss about divorce at Johan’s office, initially Johan wants to sign the papers without reading but after unexpected making of love, he wants to discuss the fundamentals of it, so as to feel that he isn’t being cheated. Marianne flares up and explains him that it is pointless to discuss anything because she wants to break, as it has been very painful and has taken a long time to forget him; she wants to be free so that she can live her own life.

However, Johan is in on a postmortem mood, explains to her that he is going down both financially, emotionally and explains her that he found himself as nothing but a doormat, grudgingly declares good behavior used to earn him a lay, bad behavior or criticism went severely punished.

Marianne, in-turn shouts at him for finding herself hedged in by all the endless and griping demands from him, his mother and society! And she hates him for whining about conspiracies, defends that she is the only one who fights and faces reality by overcoming difficulties. Somehow, Marianne fathoms Johan’s tribulations, his unwillingness for a divorce; later Johan honestly admits that he is still bound to Marianne in a deeper way than he knew.

In the process of a divorce Marianne had often warned wives against spending time alone with their husbands and finds it amusing that she herself is doing the same, which makes Johan mad and they both engage in a physical duel.

All in all, this quote from Johan pretty much sums the percipient character analysis of the episodeWe’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”.

In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World
Marianne and Johan are married to new spouses; they meet secretly and are having an affair with each other for more than 2 years. On their 20th Anniversary they plan for an outing and are amazingly compassionate, cheerful for each other. With a certain sense of humility, Johan has accepted his true dimensions and has stopped being on the defensive, whereas, Marianne acquiescently confesses that she truly enjoys her sex life with her new partner and is obsessed with the new sensation. However, she concludes that the current marriage is purely a sexual affair and nothing else.

Johan’s expression change, exasperatingly states that Marianne should write a novel for women’s libbers. He continues to explain about the awareness that they’ve gained. Sarcastically expressing: One faces up to his insignificance, the other, to her greatness.

Johan: Here we are, trashing our spouses. They’re in this room with us. It’s mental group sex to the max. It’s like a textbook on life. It’s fabulous, but I can’t bear it.
Marianne: I see, but I don’t find it terrible.
Johan: I can’t abide this cold light directed on my every endeavor. How I battle with futility.
Johan: I try to cheer myself up thinking that life is what you make of it, but those are empty words. I want something to long for.
Marianne: I don’t feel the same way.
Johan: I realize that.
Marianne: I persevere. I enjoy myself. I rely on common sense and my gut feeling. They work together. I’m content with my direction. Time has given me a third partner: Experience.

They comfort each other and go to bed; In the Dead of Night Marianne awakes from a terrible nightmare.

Marianne: Sometimes it grieves me that I have never loved anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been loved either. It really distresses me.
Johan: Now you’re being histrionic. I know what I feel. I love you in my selfish way and I think you love me, in your fussy, pestering way. We love each other like people do here on earth, but you’re so demanding.
Marianne: Yes, I am.
Johan: It’s as simple as this: Here I am in a dark house somewhere in the world, with my arms around you and you are here in my arms. I lack empathy for my fellow human beings. I’m low on imagination, I suppose. I don’t know what my love looks like and I can’t describe it. Most of the time I don’t feel it.
Marianne: You think I love you too?
Johan: Yes, I do. If we harp on, love will vanish.

A fitting end to the glorious chronicle which accentuates the positive, fills their ephemeral hearts with a sense of hope which connects their souls at a very, very basic level.


Whether you have been married or not (in this case which i am not), Scenes from a Marriage feels intriguing, uncompromising and that’s because its concerns are timeless. You never think of these things consciously but when you delve on the relationship between the representation and the reality, you bask in sunlight and the experience itself is gratifying.

Scenes from a Marriage is unexampled, it’s not simply a film with a cliched plot, it’s a film with an overwhelming experience in human emotion. With all perversions, the taste, the gestures, the film is completely devoid of nudity and that’s something hard to achieve in modern cinema. It only has a few platonic kisses but the conversations creates intensified ripples of awareness. Bergman says “It took two and a half months to write these scenes; it took a whole adult life to live.” And I sincerely want to recommend this movie to all of my married friends not just to fashion themselves with articulated upholstery but save for a participation in uplifting their recesses of heart in a direction that is beyond conventional.

Scenes from a Marriage –
Marriage as Cinematic Movement, or Loving the Face in Close-Up: Scenes From a Marriage
Social Perspective in Scenes from a Marriage’
Criterion Essays – Scenes from a Marriage
The Existential Vacuum in Bergman’s “Scenes from a. Marriage”.
Conversational strategy and metastrategy in a pragmatic theory: The example of Scenes from a Marriage

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