Friday, 12 November 2010

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Synopsis: Middle class Swedish couple argue about marriage. The End.

Another one of those modern foreign art-house classics that one is supposed to have seen. I thought that this would be a struggle to get through in that it's about two and a half hours long and not much really happens. Apart from talking. A lot of talking. This film is all centred around the dialogue of a couple that have been married for some time, the husband has an affair, they break-up and eventually divorce but begin an affair of their own even after both have remarried.

Anyway, I needn't have worried about being bored. The dialogue is fascinating and not quite the intellectual merry go round that I had expected. It is an honest look at what couples can feel about each other, using accessible language and ideas.

We get to know the couple, Marianne and Johan, pretty well throughout their rows/discussions. We see their vulnerability and their strength as they both move through the different stages of the marriage and break up and I got a real sense of how, by the end, they both change a great deal.

As we begin the story, Marianne and Johan first speak to a reporter about their marriage (Johan bragging about himself and Marianne shyly talking about herself) and then as they entertain another couple. This bourgeois dinner party soon turns sour as the friends begin a vicious Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf style battle of put downs and insults. Marianne and Johan look on objectively, and even pride themselves on their own smug happiness after the couple have gone. We get a sense that we are being set up for some sort of fall as both the discussions with the reporter and the dinner party point to potential problems.

We also get a few scenes in which both partners are shown struggling with their family obligations and we see the strain that this puts on the other. Eventually Johan declares his love for another woman and leaves Marianne. This scene is a hard watch, as its played so low key, so matter of fact. Bergman gives them so much room in these scenes to go over what is happening and yet still you're left with that desperate notion (that many of us have experienced) at time having run out for them as a couple.

Marianne deals with the break up through various emotions: denial, anger and finally a strong resolve to pick herself up and carry on. There's a great sequence when Johan visits Marianne for the first time in six months for dinner. She discusses the therapy that she's been in, reading from her diary. I thought this scene was really superb, as Marianne (through photo flashbacks of Liv Ullman as a girl growing up) describes how her upbringing and adolescence has shaped the woman she has become. The insight and authenticity that Bergman brings to the female mindset is remarkable considering he also wrote these scenes and although much of Marianne's monologue feels very psychoanalytical, it still rings true on a much more instinctive level. The ace climax to her intimate monologue is that Johan has fallen asleep whilst listening, which is perhaps even more authentic than Marianne's speech.

This is followed by Johan's attempted seduction of Marianne, reminding me a bit of the end of Antonioni's La Notte. Bergman shows how sex between the couple has become a matter of bargaining and no longer of passion. Even as Marianne admits how she has thought of Johan in that way since their separation, she will not give in to him because of how this will make her feel. Earlier on, pre break up we see a couple of attempts of one or the other at suggesting sex, with the other rejecting for some banal reason. I would bet a hundred quid that anyone in a long term relationship would recognise themselves or their partners in these sequences.

The other cracking sequence is the one in which (again months or is it years) later, they are in Johan's office to sign the divorce papers. This felt like a scene from a stage play - it's an over extended scene in which the characters get drunk on expensive French brandy, first get along and agree and then argue horribly about getting divorced. They take turns in having the upper hand until Johan resorts to physical violence, finally releasing the tension that has built up between them over several years.

So many times whilst watching this I felt as if I were a voyeur, eavesdropping on the most delicate and intimate discussions of the couple. I think this is partly as the vast majority of scenes are between Marianne and Johan, we get very few supporting characters and even then they are largely off screen. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere (much like a real relationship) in which the couple exists almost in a vacuum.

That they embark on an affair with each other even after re-marriage is perhaps testimony to an idea of what? not being able to let go? being just this side of right for each other? masochism? The ending, with the couple on a dirty weekend in a seaside cottage, is very much open to interpretation. Will Marianne and Johan continue with their affair or will their relationship ever finally come to an end? Maybe Bergman is saying that we could spend our entire lives exploring relationships with the same people, but still never really learn enough to be happy, either about ourselves or our partners.

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