Emotional Literacy: Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

Katy Karpfinger

My mother-in-law recently added another to a long list of complaints she has about her son; he reads too much. “It smacks of a desire to escape from reality” she said. We shrugged it off and later laughed about it but she got me thinking. Since my husband and I are both avid consumers of fiction and, when we are not reading, spend our precious sofa time watching many, many films, I began wondering whether perhaps she could be right. Are we filling our lives with stories to avoid living real life? For what one can apply to novels one could also apply to film. But then I thought again and realized that, as usual, she was speaking utter tosh. My thoughts turned to Ingmar Bergman, a man for whom the lines between fiction/fantasy and reality have always been blurred, and whose magnificent TV series Scenes From a Marriage we had recently watched.

‘It was difficult to differentiate between what was fantasy and what was real. If I made an effort I was perhaps able to make reality stay real. But, for instance, there were ghosts and spectres, what was I to do with those?Bergman remembers his childhood in his autobiography The Magic Lantern.

Scenes From a Marriage is a brutally honest portrayal of a failing marriage which essentially consists of five hours of searching dialogue between the two protagonists, Johan and Marianne. A more human, confronting and real portrayal of a relationship is hard to imagine. It is a prime example of a case which should be true of all great novels and films. Fiction, rather than allowing its audience to escape from reality, actually forces them to confront it.

The drama takes place over a ten year period, each episode of the TV series providing a snapshot of their relationship during that time. When we first meet Marianne and Johan they have been happily married for 10 years. They seem happy; in their mid thirties, comfortably bourgeois, surrounded by the trappings of tasteful, modern, Swedish furniture. We see them cosily go about their domestic routines, affectionate and tender with one another. They have another couple round for dinner who descend into bitter arguments and a hurtful slanging match. But Marianne and Johan, although shocked by the terrible state of their friends’ marriage, are able to calmly say, ‘That will never happen to us’. The episode ends with them drinking beer in the kitchen in their pyjamas once the feuding couple have left.

However, in the second episode, which is entitled, The art of sweeping things under the rug, we begin to see the potential cracks beneath the façade of happiness which they both put on. And at the beginning of the third episode the whole thing implodes. Johan comes home early from a business trip which delights Marianne. He then calmly tells her that he is in love with another woman and that he and the other woman (Paula) are going to Paris the next morning to stay for at least eight months. The discussion which follows this bombshell is an uncomfortably honest dissection of each other and their relationship, the likes of which most mortals would run from screaming. In the end though, it is truthful and fascinating viewing. Through the fourth and fifth episodes, Johan and Marianne see each other again after long intervening periods. These episodes chart their personal and emotional journeys following separation and include their sometimes civil, sometimes tender but also violent and emotional wrangling over divorce. The signing of the official papers takes place at the end of episode 5 and seems final and irrevocable.

The sixth episode shows us Johan and Marianne several years later, on what would have been their twentieth wedding anniversary. They are both re-married but are having an affair. In a shabby, make-shift holiday cottage which belongs to an old friend they talk about their shared past and are able to let the ghosts lie and to finally accept each other for who they are. The kernel of mutual affection which we saw in episode one is still there.

Bergman admits in an interview that when he wrote Scenes From a Marriage, his wife told him it would never be a success. It was far too personal.  But this is where the genius of Bergman and the skill of the two main actors (Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson) comes in, as does the intimate way the series is shot, forcing the viewers into empathy with the characters . It is, infact, riveting to watch; never clichéd, sometimes shocking, sometimes sweet, sometimes infuriating, but mostly just achingly true. And this was a view shared by the Scandinavian television viewers. By the time the second episode aired, the word had got around that this was something special. Stockholm’s streets were deserted.

According to Bergman’s autobiography, The Magic Lantern, he certainly had enough experience with marriage to make this drama true. The scene in which Johan comes home and tells Marianne he is in love with another woman and is buggering off to Paris comes straight out of Bergman’s life (and although the circumstances may have differed each time, he did it more than once). Bergman evidently found the ties and responsibilities of marriage very difficult and had a taste for sexy women and a weakness for romance. But the reason that Scenes From a Marriage works so well is that although it shows us the breakdown of one, unique marriage, it also has large streaks of universality. I would defy anyone who has been in a long-term relationship not to see elements of themselves in the unfolding drama; whether it is in the fussiness of Marianne preparing food for her husband, the familiarity of the couple, rolling over one another in bed to set the alarm clock, the banal chatting about forthcoming family events and duties or in the simple domestic routines they have developed, choreographed and perfected over years of communal living. Most striking to me, however, were the familiar discussions about sex and the instant defensiveness of Marianne as if she were being blamed for her occasional lack of desire. It is the universality of the series which makes it seem so very modern, so very now, despite the fact that it was made in the early 1970s.

After she has recovered from the terrible shock of abandonment, it is Marianne who manages to grow and develop as a person and analyses the failure of her marriage. What she discovers is that she has never really known who she is. Instead of being her true self she has played a series of roles; an obedient child, a popular teenager, an independent young woman and finally a wife and mother. During all this time she has let the expectations of others dictate how she behaves, but more importantly she has let these expectations become her own and allowed them to dictate how she feels, to the extent that she has obliterated all remnants of her true self. The more one reflects, the more one sees that we all have this tendency within us. Through our empathy with Marianne we see that all human beings are actors, creating fictional selves in order to relate to those around us. Subconsciously we are all playing our parts in the dramas of our lives; so where, ultimately, is that line between fiction and reality? I began to question myself – how much of my recent discovery of a desire to keep the bathroom clean is really me? And how much is it the idea of being a good wife? This playing of roles, of maintaining socially dictated facades within a relationship becomes one of the main themes of the series. When Johan leaves his wife in episode three he rails against the tediousness of the ritual of family events; keeping mother happy, remembering birthdays, visiting people and being polite. What he is really railing against is playing his role. He can no longer keep up the façade. He even confesses to enjoying being brutal, precisely because it is absolutely out of the character he has played for so long. The irony for him, however, is that he doesn’t find the freedom he craves in his relationship with Paula. Such freedom can only come from inside and, despite being a professor of Psychiatry, he lacks the skills to truly focus on himself  – he is emotionally illiterate. When his career begins to fall apart, however, and he is forced to recognize that he is on the academic scrapheap, he admits that he never even really wanted an academic career in the first place. He tells Marianne of his first childish ambition to run a stationery shop and that he suspects this would have made him happy. Bergman is asking how it can be possible to have a fulfilling relationship with another human being when we do not really know ourselves, when we only know how we think we ought to be and how we want to be perceived. What seems to hurt Marianne the most when Johan leaves is the discovery, during a telephone call to a friend, that everyone else already knew of her husband’s affair. It is almost as if the destruction of the idea of their happy marriage is more painful than the failure of the marriage itself.

Another of the central themes of this drama is the issue of guilt. Bergman admits in his autobiography that he felt a tremendous weight of guilt for leaving successive wives and families and this guilt is transferred to Johan’s character. When Marianne tries to help him pack for his trip to Paris, saying that he was never any good at it, he lashes out and is mean to her. He can’t face the guilt of having her help him to injure her. Then, after a calm and business-like breakfast, as he puts on his raincoat and prepares to leave the house, she begs him to reconsider, asks him how he can be so cruel and he pushes her off, literally pries her arms from around his neck and rushes out. She is prolonging his guilty agony and playing the ‘poor me’ card. Using guilt as a weapon is probably something we all do from time to time. What we should remember is that it generally backfires, reducing rather than increasing the chance of reconciliation. But what of blame? In the later film version of the TV series, which is necessarily shorter, it is Johan who comes off as the villain of the piece and it is easy to see why he might be. But in the longer TV version, blame is not directed at one or other of them. The audience is free to weigh up the situation for themselves and the result is that we have sympathy and understanding for both of them. There is no villain and no hero, they are both people; fallible, mixed-up, sometimes cruel and sometimes loving.

Hidden amongst all this emotional turmoil is the question of love. In the opening episode, Marianne and Johan pose for a photograph for a magazine article about successful marriages. After the photo has been taken the reporter interviews Marianne about their relationship and asks her about love. Marianne gives an academic answer to the question saying that nobody really knows what love is but that she supposes it has to do with companionship, affection and the desire to look after the other person. While she speaks we feel that she is giving a spiel; that she is not speaking from her heart. At the end of episode six, Marianne confesses to Johan that she worries that she has never really loved or been loved and we almost scoff in disbelief. Johan tells her that they love each other in their own individual, somewhat messy and selfish ways (the way we all love, I suspect). And this is what comes shining through the whole series. Despite the cruelty, the misunderstanding, the brutal honesty and desire to wound each other, it is clear throughout that there is love. Through the intimate close-ups of the camera on the faces of the protagonists we see what takes place in their eyes, we see the small touches of their hands, the continuing desire they feel for each other. This is what makes Scenes From a Marriage ultimately an uplifting piece of viewing. We are asked to try to understand ourselves, to become emotionally literate, as both of the characters have to some extent done by episode six, so that we can enjoy the comfort and mutual satisfaction of love. This is not the idealized, pure love so often presented to us as a goal to be reached at all costs; this is real, sweaty, confused and confusing, sometimes painful, human love – the kind that is actually attainable.  Fiction here is truly helping us to understand and perhaps even to improve our ‘reality’.

Katy Karpfinger is an Edinburgh University-educated Brit living happily in Boston, U.S with her German husband but without a work visa. She is therefore dividing her time between volunteering in a museum and writing her first novel based on the many stories of Burke & Hare and Edinburgh’s dark past. She is inspired by history, fiction and films.

3 Responses to “Emotional Literacy: Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage”
  1. Loved the article! I’ve seen neither the film nor the TV series, but I feel as if I already know the characters.

  2. Marly Surena-Llorens says:

    Very good summary of the movie.

  3. Cindy Yan Lin says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Very well written and very insightful! (:

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