2018 Film Essays

The Comfort of Shared Pain: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Scenes from a Marriage’

Truth be told, I’ve come to the Ingmar Bergman table quite late. To put it into a metaphor, it feels like I’ve just arrived at a dinner party, stepping in from the rain only to find that the other guests have already finished eating and are now in an adjoining room enjoying coffee and brandy, heard but not seen. From the sounds, I can hear they are clearly relaxed, digesting their meals and enjoying an effortless conversation about Sweden’s towering giant of a filmmaker while languidly rolling cigar smoke around their tongues. Meanwhile, in the dining room, I’m carefully draping my dripping wet coat over the back of a chair and finding whatever scraps are left to be had. To the untrained eye, it might look like they’ve not left me much, but — on closer inspection — there’s more than enough.

To exemplify that a little goes a long way, I’m going to examine one film in this essay rather than Bergman’s entire career. And, to be willfully perverse, I’m going to look at a film he made for television, rather than the big screen: Scenes from a Marriage (1973). And instead of writing about the entire film, I’m going to focus on just one scene. Why? Because it works as a synecdoche for me: one six-minute scene representing decades of development in a filmmaker’s career, and foreshadowing where he would go after that. It is a fulcrum, a point at which one finds him in flux, trying something different, and abandoning his earlier approach.

The scene in question takes place around 38 minutes into the theatrical cut of the film (not the full TV version), and it’s the only full scene in the film that doesn’t feature Erland Josephson (the husband). Instead, it features Liv Ullmann, who plays Marianne (the wife), opposite an Icelandic actress who I’d never heard of before, but who burned her image onto the back of my retina in this scene. Her name is Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, and she plays Fru Jacobi.

Here’s the focus of the scene: Marianne is a lawyer, and Fru Jacobi has come to get a divorce after being married for 20 years. Over the course of the conversation, they will move from the administrative, everyday brutality of a legal discussion to the darkly private and rarely spoken interior feelings that run alongside these moments, as Fru Jacobi tries to put into words why she no longer wants to be with her husband. If you’ve never seen the film, then I’d encourage you to pause for a moment and contemplate how this scene might play out. You probably have a pre-existing understanding of what it is to experience this type of moment in cinema. Devastating? Yes, most assuredly, but almost certainly not in the way that might be expected.

As I was watching the scene, two elements hit me with incredible force, and both of them are two of the seminal questions that a filmmaker considers when setting up a scene:

1. How am I going to cover this?

2. Why am I going to do it that way?

To the uninitiated, these are the questions which come to the fore when you’re a filmmaker, rather than just a film watcher. And they’re all encompassing. No matter what sort of scene you’re filming, whether it’s action or dialogue, interior or exterior, the first questions correlate with the real and concrete matters of where you are going to put the camera in relation to the actors, and why. Are you close, or far away? Do you move or stay still? And no matter what the answer may be, there is always the follow-up: why are you doing it like that? And that’s where every other choice in filmmaking stems from, from two deceptively simple starting blocks.

People who’ve never made a film but know everything about films might disagree and say “that’s what storyboards are for,” but it’s rarely that simple. Yes, you’ve planned it all, drawn it all out, but once you’re in a space with a camera and actors, you can look at your storyboard and find it problematic. These images are two-dimensional, and right now you’re in a room that offers alternatives which may be much better than the plan. You can recreate (kind of) the drawing that was done months or years ago with no real idea of where the final location was going to be, but now that you’re here, you find that a side step to the left or right might be more interesting. The three-dimensionality of shooting makes the storyboard feel like a clumsy, overly simplistic tool. As a film watcher, everything was once about two-dimensionality, but as a filmmaker, this relationship comes to an end very quickly. And all of this is before one has even considered bringing movement into the scene, which will affect the relationship with every object and person. Trust me, when you’re moving the camera, the storyboard becomes something antiquated, quaint.

In this scene, there’s little camera movement. Bergman starts with Marianne on the phone (it’s not clear who she’s speaking to), and once her conversation is over, she hangs up and walks across her office, introducing Fru Jacobi in a two-shot. This two-shot holds for a surprisingly short amount of time, just long enough to identify the space between the two women, the bland, symmetrical furnishings and colours of the room, and nothing more. Once these elements are established, Bergman then moves into singles, and stays with them for the rest of the scene. It’s worth mentioning that a great deal of Scenes from a Marriage is covered in singles, but what’s interesting here is the moments when parts of another body bleed into the shot. Particularly when a character speaks from a place of isolation and/or loneliness — when they have a reliance on or need for another person. It is then that their singles will become a type of two-shot, featuring parts of the body of the person who represents their need — most often, but not always, the face. The result is a visual representation of lives which are physically tangled up with others. But Marianne and Fru Jacobi never bleed into each other, and that’s important. These are medium singles, airy, no intrusions upon each other. This isn’t the close-up or extreme close-up that is often referred to as Bergman’s signature, the “landscape of the human face” that he loved so dearly. Instead, this is something far more familiar, almost beguiling in its simplicity.

Bergman stays with medium singles, following a traditional grammatical format of shot-reverse shot as the two characters talk, first one, then the other. Marianne asks questions and Fru Jacobi answers them. This was made for television after all, so talking heads are part of the format. But here’s the thing: this is the early 1970s, and Bergman has been directing since 1944. He’s been doing this for almost 30 years by this point. To say that he’s covering a scene like this because it’s a television project is to do him a disservice. No, in fact there’s a palpable sense of thought behind how Bergman uses his camera, and what he may want to achieve in doing things this way. The camera movements are few, but they’re so embedded in the aforementioned “why” that the thought process behind these choices quietly comes to the fore with an unobtrusive confidence. It’s there if you want to see it. Now, it’s rare for me to come across a film that has such clarity of thought behind the camera; so many films these days seem to cover a scene from as many angles as possible and then assemble themselves according to a theory that the audience should never be bored, and that the idea behind film watching is to simply understand an image and then move on; process, then proceed, process, proceed, rinse and repeat. But what if you don’t? What if you hold on an image? What if you do something differently? Where does that take a scene? After 30 years behind a camera, Bergman is clearly engaging with these questions — questions which he began asking himself earlier in his career, but which he’s now boiling down to their essence. It’s almost like when you want to make a soup, you could simply throw everything in the kitchen into the pot, boil it, stir it, and you will have a number of flavours competing for attention. But do this for a few years and you may find yourself wanting to achieve a different result. To achieve something different, you may well find yourself subtracting rather than adding. You may seek a combination of flavours from a mere handful of ingredients. Why? Because you create a simpler, cleaner soup that can have just as much, if not more, depth to it. And that’s what’s happening in Scenes from a Marriage: to build a scene, to assemble a full narrative of a marriage dissolving, of what it is to be human and to ache, Bergman is reducing, not adding.

Another feature that’s paramount to this scene is the dialogue. In Scenes From a Marriage, the dialogue is the plot, the plot is the dialogue. There’s simply no distinction between the two. Some people miss this element and write Scenes from a Marriage off as “too talky,” but that would be to miss the point. The dialogue is non-stop in the same way that a marriage is a non-stop conversation between two people that carries on for many years. That’s how we identify ourselves to the people around us, how we make sense of our experiences and feelings: we create a world which is built up of words — a world which is apt to be misrepresented as words cannot in any way describe a world entirely made up of images and objects, emotions and sensations. By lacking other tools to communicate, we continue to misrepresent ourselves and everything around and inside us by speaking. That’s not to say that silences don’t occur in the film, because they do — punctuation points that cut like a blade. And it’s in this everyday rat-a-tat back-and-forth between Marianne and Fru Jacobi that leads to silence after Marianne asks the question “Why do you want a divorce?” This break is emphasized further by the fact that Bergman doesn’t cut to Fru Jacobi as one might expect, rather he stays on Marianne. The silence goes on as Marianne, eyes down, finishes writing her notes, seems to notice the quiet and looks up. Only then does Bergman cut back to Fru Jacobi who tries to formulate the answer. Her eventual response? “It’s a loveless marriage.”

After establishing the shape and routine of their marriage, Marianne asks a question that might be overly personal outside of this context, but is entirely relevant to her role as a divorce lawyer: “Have you met someone else?” And it’s at this point, and not one moment before, that Bergman moves away from these medium singles, and into the close-ups that the scene will stay in for the remainder.

Now, Bergman has already established what Fru Jacobi looks like, but viewers haven’t seen her this close yet. And it’s only at Marianne’s query about meeting someone else that one gets a chance to examine her features in such fine detail: she’s inarguably old. Her hair is grey, and slightly unkempt. Her eyes are sad, tired. This is not the face of a woman caught up in the passion of life, or the dizzy excitement of a new romance. This is something else, someone else. But one may only consider that now because of Bergman’s close-up. And what a close-up it is. At first, Fru Jacobi’s entire visage is impassive in the face of the question, and then a smile breaks, and she says “No, I haven’t.” What’s that smile about? Does the very thought of her being a figure of desire amuse her? Is there something ludicrously comic about the idea of ridding yourself of one man only to replace him with another? Possibly. That close-up, and Barbro Hiort af Ornäs’ performance, both hides and reveal so much, which happens a great deal throughout life.

At this point, it would be reductive to say that Bergman knowingly references Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with this close-up, but it’s also easy to see how someone might reach that conclusion. Fru Jacobi’s close-up is just her head, with a monotone yellow background. There are no other details or distractions in the shot whatsoever (much like how Dreyer framed Renée Jeanne Falconetti). Additionally, the camera has now moved from the side to somewhere close to the line of sight between Marianne and Fru Jacobi. The impact? Their gaze almost reaches the audience, their eyes are slightly to the side, but not so much that the scene is bereft of any sense of direct address, of breaking the fourth wall and having these characters engage with the audience. Why does this matter? Possibly for many reasons, but here’s one interpretation: in Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle books, the impact of his “confessions” (much of them may be re-imagined or fictionalised) is that time and time again one may not think about Knausgård while reading the words but rather look inward instead. And in this exchange, one may spend as much time thinking about their relationships as they do contemplating Fru Jacobi’s past, and what this conversation means to Marianne and her own marriage. This isn’t a film about fictional characters — this is a film about what it is to be human, and to love, and be loved, or, as in this case, to experience an overwhelming lack of love. Some might disagree with this, but when Scenes From a Marriage was first shown on Swedish television, the number of divorces doubled, and Bergman had to remove his telephone number from the directory to prevent people from calling him for relationship advice. This is not filmmaking as an attempt to furrow a well-worn genre groove, or to entertain, this is something difficult, deeply human. And that’s one of the reasons I’m hesitant to talk too much about Dreyer’s potential influence here. This is not a mere exercise in quoting cinema.

Regardless of whether Dreyer’s shadow is present over the third stage of this scene, the close-up of Fru Jacobi’s confession continues to astonish, primarily through its high wire act dialogue between banal observations and thoughts. Bergman suggests that her relationship is without passion, and always has been, which one may expect. What viewers may not expect, however, is what Jacobi says next, as she states that she has never loved her children, and realizes that she never felt anything for them. And it’s with this revelation that she then does something heartbreaking: she smiles – another Bergman surprise.

And then, finally, the camera moves.

It starts with Fru Jacobi saying the words “I have the capacity to love, but it’s all been bottled up.” And the camera moves down to her hands, fingers intertwined. She pulls them apart, almost as though Bergman now includes the physical to explore an invisible, interior, emotional sensation that words can’t express. Bergman then moves up again, back onto the recognisable structure of face close-ups, and Fru Jacobi continues: “The life I’ve led has stifled my potential. The time has come to change that. […] 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.” And it’s on this word “dry” that the camera lurches back to Marianne — in a movement that is nauseating in its urgency, and quite unlike anything in the film up to this point — to a tighter close-up of Marianne. And it is only now that one may realize they’ve been moving quietly closer and closer to Marianne, to a face that is not only listening to the words as how they relate to Fru Jacobi, but also to how they relate to Marianne herself, to her own unspoken fears (and, of course, to the audience’s own fears). The pain in Marianne’s eyes is effervescent as Fru Jacobi extends her metaphor of the table to include a description of the day-to-day experiences of her life with the following words: “Puny, grey and undignified.” This is how the scene and Fru Jacobi’s marriage come to an end. Quietly devastating.

For younger readers and fans of cinema, Bergman is just another filmmaker in a long list that one needs to become acquainted with, almost like a sense of duty. And before I arrived at this party, that was how I felt about him. But now that I’m here, taking the leftover scraps from the table, I can tell you that for those who have lived and loved and been through pain and joy, he has so much more to offer, and all without any of the showmanship tricks that a lesser talent might employ. Something about these later films, and this Fru Jacobi moment in particular, reminds me of the story where a music student plays a flawless Johannes Brahms piece, only to receive a B. When he asks his music teacher how he could be given a B when he made no mistakes, he is told “You have not cried enough tears to play this piece.” Put bluntly, the more difficult your life has been, the more Bergman may mean to you.

So, let’s return to the opening metaphor of the dinner party, and how even though there was little left for me at the table, there was plenty. Because what remained was strong in flavour: caviar, surströmming, gammelost. A little goes a long way, and that’s really the point of all this. Bergman doesn’t need tricks because the simplicity of what he’s presenting will cut you to the core if you open yourself up and let it in.

Ben Woodiwiss (@BenWoodiwiss) is a writer-director who lives and works in London, UK. He’s written and given talks on film for a number of publications and organisations and his first feature film, ‘Benny Loves Killing,’ is now available on Amazon. He also works on his own film review site, looking at a more philosophical and personal connection to cinema, and drinks a lot of coffee.

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