Scenes from a Marriage (1976): Ingmar Bergman’s Screen Version of TV Series, Starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson

One of the finest of Ingmar Bergman’s films, “Scenes from a Marriage” was originally broadcast on Swedish TV in six-episodes lasting  300 minutes.

Bergman then cut it for the US theatrical release to 168 minutes, which may explain why this version feels choppy and truncated.

An arthouse hit, “Scenes from a Marriage” did well with the critics’ groups and the Golden Globes (winning Best Foreign Language Film), but rigid Academy rules prevented the movie from being eligible for that year’s Oscars.

This powerful look at a “happy” marriage destroyed from within, features Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), a longtime married couple whose lives spin out in unexpected directions once he leaves her for a younger woman. Johan’s cruelty toward Marianne barely conceals the self-doubts that keep him tethered to their relationship. For her part, Johan’s action forces Marianne tentatively step outside their carefully constructed existence and discover her individual voice.

This raw and uncompromising picture has endured as one of Bergman’s finest achievements in his late period. The two-disc DVD edition includes the original 5-hour TV version, interviews with Bergman, Liv Ullmann, and Josephson, and discussion by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie of the differences between the film and TV versions.

As director and writer, Bergman proves that he one of world cinema’s best and most theatrical director of actresses. The year before, Bergman made another masterpiece, “Cries and Whispers,” one of the few foreign-language films to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, boasting four towering performances from Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, and Kari Sylwan.

In “Scenes from a Marriage,” Bergman gives the inimitable Ullmann, with whom he was romantically involved at the time and had a child together, a superb role. He casts her as an abandoned wife forced to deal with her weak husband’s involvement with a younger woman.

Bergman is at his most stylistically stark, even austere. The tale is filmed almost entirely in revealing close-ups or mega close-ups, that bring the litany of pain to the screen, by the masterful cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who has collaborated with Bergman on many films.

Very little actually happens, much of the film consists of intimate conversations within rooms. But if there’s little “plot” to speak of, the characterization is sharp, poignant, and in-depth. The film’s chief force lies in its dramatization of familial traumas but you will be deeply moved by the marvelous acting and honest of Bergman’s screenplay.

Reflecting the zeitgeist, specifically the nascent feminist movement, “Scenes from a Marriage” offers a detailed anatomy of the doubt, despair, confusion, and loneliness, experienced by Marianne, after learning of her husband’s illicit affair.

An uncompromisingly harrowing and honest account of husband-wife relationship, it dwarfs similarly themed American films, such as Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978), with Jill Clayburgh in the title role, a decent melodrama but not nearly as searing or poignant as “Scenes from a Marriage.”

Three decades later, Bergman revisits his characters in the equally wonderful “Saraband,” an unofficial sequel to the 1973 film.

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