Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rants on Scenes from a Marriage

The idea of reviewing an Ingmar Bergman film, especially considering my last post involved a memoir from a girl who at the time of publication couldn't even drive a car, seems a little daunting to say the least. But considering I spent five hours watching the TV version of his Scenes from a Marriage, I figured I owed it to myself to write up a couple thoughts about it.

In the simplest terms possible, Scenes from a Marriage follows the disintegration of the marriage between Marianne (Swedish acting goddess Liv Ullmann, in one of her most famous performances) and Johan (Erland Josephson). For years, they have pretended that their marriage has been a happy one. In reality, however, they've simply swept their problems under the rug, as the title of the second episode implies, and subconsciously avoided discussing their real feelings toward each other. Marianne, in particular, has deluded herself so much that when her husband tells her that he's leaving her for another woman, she is caught completely off-guard. Apart from each other, they begin a journey of self-discovery which leads to drastically different results. Marianne realizes that she has a problem standing up for herself and putting others' feelings ahead of her own. Johan, on the other hand, realizes how utterly miserable he is without Marianne and admits that he made a mistake leaving her. After their separation and even through subsequent marriages, the two of them continue to analyze what went wrong in their relationship.

The plot doesn't sound too different from a typical American divorce drama circa 1982 but Bergman's execution completely sets apart. As per usual, the visuals from famed Sven Nykvist are emotionally cold and distant, appropriately highlighting the relationship between Marianne and Johan. What is particularly unusual about the camerawork, however, is its remarkable simplicity. Bergman wasn't particularly famous for a moving camera, but he had an eye for crafting haunting images using lights and shadows. I still find myself frightened by that image of Liv Ullmann in Cries and Whispers where she stares straight into the camera while a shadow covers half of her face. With Scenes from a Marriage, the camera is often non-existent, peering at the Marianne and Johan like an uncomfortable third-party. This often gives the film the feeling that it's more of a rough cut of a film than a fully realized one. The camera often lingers on the same shot of Marianne and Johan, deep in conversation about some aspect of their marriage, for far too long. When you expect the film to make a cut and move on, the camera is still trying to capture something else. The art direction is also rather uncomfortable, eerily similar to the sets in Godard's La Chinoise (a surprising comparison since Bergman thought Godard was a "fucking bore"). This makes sense because, like that Godard film, Scenes from a Marriage is not necessarily interested in making a statement visually. The lack of distracting camerawork and art direction is on purpose so we can focus on what is being said by the characters. This is a film about words and faces and reactions and, holy hell, do we get a lot of that. At times, Scenes from a Marriage comes across as too harsh and too personal, to the point where you have to tune out to keep your sanity. But a lot of what is said is powerful stuff and apparently needed to be brought out in the open as, according to Bergman, the divorce rate skyrocketed after this debuted on TV. This film touched a lot of people, which is both incredibly hard to do and surprising considering Bergman's cerebral filmmaking. If anything, Scenes from a Marriage showed just how complicated and twisted the relationship between formerly married couples can be. Unexpectedly, this film validated the complex relationship between Dorothy and Stan on The Golden Girls; finally I understood why even after all the hurt they had gone through with each other, they never could completely break free. B

By the way, I feel like I should mention Liv Ullmann's performance here. As you may be aware, she was notoriously declared ineligible at the 1974 Oscars since the film had aired on TV beforehand which prompted this newspaper ad from all of Hollywood's then-reigning females thespians to have her included for consideration. Pretty ballsy, huh? And, judging by her performance, those ladies were on to something. While I didn't love her as much as I did in my personal favorite performance of hers, Autumn Sonata, she's damned excellent. She has the uncanniest ability to portray five emotions at once using only her eyes and slight shifts in her face. And she does this all in the most unshowiest way possible. If she was in her heyday now, there is no way she would ever be nominated for an Oscar, let alone two in a five year span. I've never seen anything like it. She is a one-of-a-kind talent and I'm dying to see more of her work.

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