Now and then, movies come along that make you uncomfortably stay in your seat while two people argue across the table. That, in itself, is a difficult watch. But imagine a film that takes you past that – a film that takes you into the next room when they have the harder part of the conversation…a film that makes you stare at him while he admits hurtful actions, at her while she weeps, at them when they realize their whole life is coming apart at the seams.
That’s Ingmar Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, and it’s incredible to witness.
Originally a television miniseries, eventually cut down to the length of a feature film, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is the story of Marianne and Johan (Liv Ulmann and Erland Josephson).
The couple have been married for ten years, have good jobs and a nice home. Their relationship seems to have calcified with comfort, convenience, and contentment. They have the nice house, the smart friends, the two cars, and everything a modern marriage is supposed to supply.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, that’s not the end of the story. One night Johan reveals to Marianne that he has been having an affair with a younger woman named Paula, and that he now wants to separate. She is despondent, but reluctantly agrees.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Some time later, after Marianne has put the pieces of her life back together, Johann returns, confessing that life with Paula didn’t turn out the way he’d wanted, and that he’d now like to reconcile.
Turns out the end of a marriage isn’t actually the end of a marriage…
Since SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is a a television miniseries adapted into a feature film, the film is able to employ a long runtime to its advantage. Conversations that would be a few lines in a modern commercial film go on for twenty minutes. Discussions and emotions seem to unfold in real time, and the result is a feeling akin to being in the discussion ourselves.
In real life relationships, important conversations seldom go the way they go in the movies. They don’t happen in romantic locations, they are never snappy, and they seldom start out being about what they ultimately end up being about. SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE plays more like what its title infers; as actual, true-to-life glimpses into one couple’s home. Heartbreak happens in grubby pyjamas, tears flow in the doorway to the bathroom, confessions are laid bare in sock feet, and in the end the conversation becomes more about practicalities than it does about emotional honesty.
That’s what’s so incredible about watching a film like this – its length and its vérité style give it the sort of emotional honesty we seldom get in cinema. We know what these people are feeling; we’ve felt it ourselves, or we’ve talked to friends who have felt it, or watched those we love go through it from a distance.
Film has a way of holding up a mirror to real life, but the mirror doesn’t usually go into the rooms SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is set in.
What this Bergman film reminded me of was the way we tell ourselves one thing, but go and do something different.
We might tell everyone who will listen that we could never “do this”, never “act like that”, never “accept this”…and yet, we do…or we will. We’re human, and it just comes with the deal. We plead when we want to stand strong. We deceive when we want to be true. We allow something to crumble when we spent so. much. effort. building it all up.
So what then? When faced with a situation that goes against everything we thought we knew, do we close-up shop? Do we wear our poor judgements on our sleeve and quietly shuffle through what’s left of our lives?
No, we don’t. This film reminds us all that we have it within ourselves to roll with the new narrative. That while we might be left numb in the moment, that we will find a way to push forward. We will make these ups and downs a part of our new character.
Our hearts break when we watch Marianne take an emotional beating as Johann reveals his infidelity. We watch her attempt to coax him into break-up sex and feel nothing but sorrow and pity. However, that is not the end of her story…just as it’s not the end of anyone who goes through such things.
So when we see her later in a stronger position – in a position where she can actually spurn the man who once spurned her – we recognize the change and the growth in her, and we cheer her for it.
Her story didn’t end during that desperate attempt for physical consolation, it just became a new and different story. So too, our stories do not end in our lowest moments, they just turn a page and become more complexed.
I hadn’t intended on making SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE the next blindspot I watched after LATE SPRING, but in hindsight they are a twisted pairing. In that film, surrounded by traditionalists, Noriko is prodded time and time again to “get married! get married! get married!”. She is hesitant – unconvinced that marriage is the be-all and end-all that her elders tell her it is, and truly wanting to live her life before making someone else a permanent part of it.
Something tells me if she watched this movie, she’d postpone the decision indefinitely. The truth of the matter is that the institution of marriage has changed so drastically throughout history; enough that it almost makes you wonder how we still subscribe to it. What was once about security, providing, political maneuvering, bargaining, pragmatism, and so many other practical matters is only recently about love – and even then, not always.
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE reminds us that this sort of relationship isn’t fuelled by looks, intelligence, sex appeal, or status. That as Johann put it, we are emotional illiterates, and can grasp so many complicated bits of information about the world around us except how to be true to one person.
Mercifully, the movie does give us moments of hope. It leaves us believing that we all have it within ourselves to grow and evolve into a better person and a better partner. It’s not an easy lesson to learn, nor a pretty journey to take…but somehow the strongest couples find a way to learn it, and navigate the journey together.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for December so far…
Rebecca watched PRINCESS MONONOKE
Coog watched RAGING BULL
Natasha watched PAN’S LABRYNTH
Brittani watched CHINATOWN
Sean watched THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
Melissa watched MON ONCLE ANTOINE
Kristina watched CHILDREN OF PARADISE
Steven watched DAS BOOT