This is not a film for those who don't like to see the issue of love and marriage dissected as never before, I think. And, for this review, I cover every major plot point and what I see as the underpinnings of the story. So, if you haven't seen it, you may want to read other reviews first.
I know of no other film that takes such an uncompromising view of the truth according to Bergman about marriage; although Kubrick made a valiant attempt in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). This story is just too emotionally painful, however, because it asks questions that, I would suggest, most married couples have thought of, if not discussed, but most would avoid answering honestly. Because there is a strong implied argument, by the end of this film, that romantic love within marriage is a contradiction mainly because a marriage between two is a business, just like any other. So, if you want a marriage to work if it indeed can then it must be worked at, by both, in the same or better way as a business.
Scenes from a marriage is an episodic exposition of distinct events scenes that occur over a period of fifteen or more years between Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson). The version I saw was the 164 minute theatrical presentation for cinema. The original story was filmed for TV and was much longer.
For clarity, I've labelled the scenes as follows: 1. The Interview; 2. The Dinner Party; 3. The Client; 4. The Truth; 5. The Separation; 6. The Return Visit; 7. The Divorce; and 8. The Affair and Revelation.
1. The film opens with a magazine writer interviewing and filming Marianne and Johan as representing what can only be described as the perfectly married couple. Johan is insufferably confident and bombastic about himself, barely admitting that he can even make mistakes. Marianne, in contrast, is subdued, uncertain, deprecating almost a parody of the good wife who defers to the subtly domineering husband.
2. At a dinner party later, with married couple Katrina (Bibi Andersson) and Peter (Jan Malmsjo) and during which the magazine article is discussed - Johan and Marianne discover that the marriage of their two friends is a sham, with the excessive drinking by Peter very much helping to loosen his tongue as the evening progresses, much to the embarrassment of all.
3. Later, at work, Marianne, being a lawyer, is interviewing a woman client who wants a divorce. During that emotionally draining and frank disclosure, Marianne learns two things: the woman wants out of a marriage in which there is no love and, on Marianne's face, there is the growing realization about the similarities between the two women vis-à-vis their separate marriages.
4. Eventually, Johan comes to Marianne one evening to announce that he's leaving her for Paula, a much younger (of course) woman. Stunned, aghast, and totally sandbagged, Marianne finds herself agreeing to let Johan go, after a long and tortuous discussion.
5. Johan leaves and Marianne despairs to the point of calling a trusted friend for advice only to learn that the friend had known about Johan's infidelity for two years. Marianne is shattered and Ullman's performance here, in extreme closeup on her face, is beyond describing. Somehow, however, Marianne pulls herself together; like many women, she's a survivor and sets out to find out more about herself.
6. Still married though, Johan carries on, as does Marianne, both separately, although they've both agreed that a divorce is best. Johan, however, tires of Paula and her ways, and returns after two years to see Marianne and the children (who are now growing up, of course). They discuss their situation once again and Johan eventually comes clean: he wants to dump Paula and come back. Marianne is surprisingly hopeful, but as expected Johan chickens out at one o'clock in the morning and leaves again.
7. Time passes but finally, they meet to sign the divorce papers. And yet, Johan still wavers, wanting to think it over, but Marianne is obdurate: she's moved on, and relishes her freedoms. The deal is done.
8. Many years later, after both marrying and settling down with new partners, Johan and Marianne get together for a more-or-less continuous affair, quite happy apparently to cheat on their spouses while maintaining their happy(?) marriages. During the final conversation, however, they both recognize their innate inability to truly love anybody perhaps even themselves.
So, with this story, there is no dramatic denouement, no great finish to a love story that might have been: it's just the brutal reality of the need for communication and romance, unfettered by responsibility and accountability. Freedom at last...
Almost certainly, in my opinion, this story has a lot of Bergman in it. He had quite a few marriages, I understand, so an autobiographical slant wouldn't be surprising. And while there is the obvious need for love and understanding for all of us, Bergman seems to be saying, in effect, that the individual is primary. Hence, although each must abide by the dictates of society's norms for functional acceptance and survival, it is only when free from those strictures that the individual is truly free. Of course, there's a paradox in that thinking without structure and stricture, the idea of freedom is nonsensical with many philosophers expounding thereon. Suffice to say, I think, that the French, above all, have succeeded where others have failed.
The acting is just flawless. Ullman and Josephson are on screen almost every scene and significantly, we never see the children or Paula. And, as with most Bergman films, the lack of frills just excellent photography, editing and script allows the viewer to take it all in, unexpurgated, unsullied and, for some, probably unwelcome.