Saturday, April 28, 2012

Extreme Close-Ups of Erland Josephson’s Face: Watching the third and fourth episodes of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

Well, Marianne and Johann (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) have broken up now.  That’s not a spoiler, mind you, but rather the basic premise of the movie (or miniseries or whatever you’d like to call it).  Johann initiated the break.  He had taken a lover, a college student half his age, and the two of them decided to run off to Paris together.  But they’re both foolish to throw away what they have (Johann and Marianne, that is).  Marianne says, vis-à-vis being a living human person, “you have to have somebody’s hand to hold.” And surely she’s right, surely it helps to have someone’s hand to hold as you go about the business of being alive and being in the world and eventually dying.  I think of Ashitaka and San facing what seems like imminent death near the end of Princess Mononoke, as they restore the Forest Spirit’s head; they did it together, and that must have made it less frightening.

By getting married and sustaining their marriage for ten years, Marianne and Johann were well on their way to having the kind of lifelong companionship and support that makes life more livable and death (if ever so slightly) less a matter of fear.  But then Johann was struck by a different kind of fear; he was afraid that he had fallen into domestic complacency, and that he was wasting his life by staying with Marianne.  And he felt this way for a long time (“Do you know how long I’ve wanted to be rid of you?” He asks with sadistic glee. “Four years!”) and he should have said something sooner, because they seem to get on together well enough, so why not fix it rather than risk being alone again? 

The scene where Johann tells Marianne that he’s been cheating on her and the he’s going to leave her is painful to watch.  Johann vents all his pent up frustrations, which he could have aired over the years, and he takes pleasure in it, the kind of perverse pleasure that comes with doing irreparable damage to something or someone you love.  Inflicting this damage gives one a sense of freedom, much like the dangerous sense of freedom which I suspect accompanies the feeling of despair if it is not suppressed quickly enough.

While watching this scene, I was initially tempted to say, “Well, I’ve found the problem with their marriage: Johann is an asshole with no self-awareness and no shame.” But he approaches the matter so lucidly—he’s so well aware of how likely it is that he’s irreversibly fucking up his life—that one feels compassion for him.  He knows that his relationship with the college student, Paula, isn’t likely to go anywhere.  And he knows he still loves Marianne.  He knows he’s probably going to make himself terribly unhappy.  It’s like he’s stepped outside himself, and is going to watch as he becomes the architect of his own doom.

On an architectural note, Johann asks Marianne at one point, “Have you seen where I put my copy of Speer’s memoirs?” This is Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, convicted at Nuremburg, imprisoned at Spandau, and released in 1966.  This miniseries was made in 1973, when Speer was still very much alive.  I don’t know what, if any, significance the reference to Speer carries with it, although it is interesting to see the specter of Nazism and, by extension, the Holocaust, intruding into this resolutely domestic drama.  No, but I take that back, this is hardly just a domestic drama; we find in it signs of that great and overblown concept, the human condition.  We find in it fear, loneliness, love, the irrational desire to destroy love, the gratuitous infliction of suffering—of cruelty—on other people.  Perhaps the reference to Speer is meant to remind us that domesticity does not exist in isolation, but is just one of the many fields of play in which we act out the “human drama” (or the “human farce,” depending on the actors and the setting).

Before I finish this post, I want to mention, more as an aside than anything else, that the scene in which Johann abruptly confronts Marianne and tells her all about his affair was based very closely on something that Ingmar Bergman actually did to one of his wives (he had five of them, and he had a total of nine children).  This (the scene and the family issues) was discussed in the documentary Bergman Island, which was composed of interviews with an elderly Ingmar Bergman in his home on his beloved Fårö island and broadcast on Swedish television in 2006.  Bergman was aware that he was neither a good husband nor a good father to most of his wives and children, and God, imagine the masochism that must have gone into recreating in Scenes from a Marriage that painful scene from one of his own marriages.  Because Johann looks like an absolute asshole (Josephson plays the narcissistic asshole well, in a way that I don’t think Max von Sydow could have done; von Sydow’s characters tend to be too sensitive, too compassionate, to act in such a manner).  In Bergman’s defense, his final marriage lasted about twenty years (the earlier four tended to last about five years a piece) and he never remarried after his last wife died.  In Bergman Island, he says that he can feel her spirit around him and that he hopes to see her in some sort of afterlife (sentiments that are rather surprising coming from the director of a “Silence of God” trilogy).
So, that’s my take on episodes three and four of Scenes from a Marriage.  Keep a lookout for my review of the final two episodes, which will likely be up soon.

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