Janet Karsten Larson teaches English at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and is an Editor-at-Large of the Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century June 1, 1977, p. 534. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The film, Scene’s from a Marriage, leaves unexamined the questions of how to redeem community in the larger society; it seems to have gone irrevocably to the devil as it has become technically more nearly perfect.
The film, Scene’s from a Marriage, leaves unexamined the questions of how to redeem community in the larger society; it seems to have gone irrevocably to the devil as it has become technically more nearly perfect.
Ingmar Bergman’s film Scenes from a Marriage tells, like the Lenten season, a serialized story culminating in violence, dawning in a quiet denouement of fragile new life. Made originally for Swedish television, the film came to American public networks in the uncut version this year. Shown in six segments -- in Chicago, just late enough to catch after the week’s Wednesday evening church service -- Scenes happened to follow the rhythm of Lent. What could its gospel story have said to Johan and Marianne in their passion narrative? Even several weeks after the TV showing, faithful Bergmanians I know are still haunted by this most disturbing, complex film.
A work in the personalist Bergman line of Cries and Whispers and Face to Face, Scenes from a Marriage has been dismissed by some as a middle-class indulgence, like those voyeuristic encounter groups on late-night TV, sponsored by local churches as the groovy alternative to the stained-glass Meditation for Living. Yet Scenes is not just an exercise in simulated sensitivity to the imaginary pains of the affluent. It is thick with personal and political implications, a scarifying image of life in the ‘70s and beyond to which Christians will be ministering. At a time when the churches are tooling up their ministries with bureaucratic, corporate, and new-therapeutic technologies, Bergman’s arresting film compels us to re-examine, especially, the techniques we use in service of that ministry.
What “happens” in Scenes from a Marriage? In the first scene Johan (Erland Josephson), a 42-year-old associate professor at the Psychotechnical Institute, and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), a 35-year-old lawyer, display to a Swedish magazine interviewer their ideal marriage, a second one for her: at a dinner party shortly after, before their eyes quarreling dinner guests play out the vicious rituals of a hellish marriage. This scene, “Innocence and Panic,” ends with a painful blending of both emotions evoked by Marianne’s revealed pregnancy, their tenuous decision to have the child, and then her inexplicable abortion. “The Art of Sweeping Under the Rug,” scene two, portrays daily life and working environments, erupting in smoothed-over anxieties. In scene three, “Paula,” Johan suddenly announces that he is leaving Marianne; her elaborate defenses are brutally shattered. Six months pass; in the fourth scene both characters go through “The Vale of Tears” -- a ragged meeting between them, set off balance by his growing sense of failure and by her uncertain recovery.
In the fifth, climaxing scene, “The Illiterates” meet in Johan’s sterile office late at night to sign the divorce papers, but after making love they break out into a fight that ends in bloody exhaustion. Much later the sixth scene takes place: Marianne’s meeting with her now-widowed mother and later her touching rendezvous with Johan “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World.” Both characters, now remarried to others, show signs of new maturity and freedom. By some miraculous dynamic of health in the nature of things -- is it grace? -- “two new people begin to emerge from all this devastation,” as Bergman writes in the preface to the published script.
The fragile “happy ending” such as it is -- can be anticipated all along: it is there in the characters’ engaging qualities, survival instincts, continual relapses into intimacy, evident fondness for each other, and -- it must be admitted -- their visual attractiveness (Liv more than Erland, needless to say). Inevitably the camera effects a kind of cinematic exculpation: Liv Ullmann’s delighted smile can cover a multitude of sins. Interestingly, the character of Marianne is much less attractive on the pages of the script than the Marianne we both saw and heard on the screen: much more selfish, demanding, even cruel.
What is Scenes from a Marriage about? The title suggests the film’s fragmentary character, and that in turn suggests one of the film’s main themes: the failure of technique to redeem lives from chaos. Johan tells the interviewer in the first scene: “I think you must have a kind of technique to be able to live and be content with your life.” Through all the “scenes” what we see and hear is a moving mosaic of many scenarios, schemes used and discarded by both central characters as they try to explain the causes of their misery and the forms of their salvation.
Technique -- process, treatment, “schooling” -- is modern industrial society’s typical way of tackling its problems, as Ivan Illich and others have lamented, only to create monstrosities of modern life together. In some rather surprising ways, Scenes from a Marriage is about the need for “deschooling” marriage and people’s souls. In the compass of two lives, Bergman’s film shows us what the 19th century belief in progress through technology and treatment -- vastly expanding in the 20th -- has brought in “interpersonal relationships.”
The major shift of setting from the first scene to the last tells us much about what their society and “home” mean for this conventional Swedish couple. In the first scene they pose with their daughters for the public photograph, on a sofa described in the script as “round and curved and Victorian and upholstered in green; it has friendly arms, soft cushions, and carved legs; it is a monstrosity of coziness.
As that weighty piece of Freudian furniture goes, so go some of the inhibitions, illusions of the past, and family dependencies of which both characters must disburden themselves. The cozy monstrosity is also, of course, the scheme of their marriage as a place of refuge from the impersonal, warlike society in which they carry on their ambitious professional lives, earning the salaries that buy conspicuous affluence.
In the last scene we understand that with their new spouses they have some of this expensive protection still. But now free of the old marriage and its gadgetry, they can “relate” as persons at last. Clinging to each other and a blanket after Marianne’s nightmare in the last moments of the film -- as on a spar in a tempest -- Johan and Marianne find some home-meaning “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World.” The Victorian monster is gone; yet the two remain, reminding one of Matthew Arnold’s lovers in the last stanza of his 1867 poem “Dover Beach”:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new.
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The “cult of personal relations,” as historian Christopher Lasch has observed, intensifies as the belief in political answers withers away. Scenes implicitly portrays this cultural pattern: the wide-scale personal withdrawal after the respective political optimisms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. (Bergman’s own despair of politics dates back to his disillusionment as a young man during the last days of Hitler’s Germany.) In Matthew Arnold’s poem of farewell to Victorian social and religious faith, at least his lovers have their love. (In those last seven and a half lines, however, one may hear even love’s “melancholy, long withdrawing roar.”)
Bergman’s lovers a century later have their love only in the most precarious way. And they are cursed by something Arnold’s lovers are yet spared: Johan and Marianne become their own illiterate armies clashing by night. (Is “fight training” what they really need?) However muted and ultracivilized, their society’s “confused alarms of struggle and flight” invade the micro-society, their most intimate space. Given the penetrating destructiveness of postindustrial society, neither the tight circle of personal relations (Marianne’s theme) nor the private region of the inner life (Johan’s) can protect them. Nor can they escape, in the midst of their comforts, the harrowing human condition.
Where alarms of mass confusion threaten the public life, schemes are called for. Two decades after “Dover Beach,” the Fabian Socialists in England were busily, busily building on the ruins with education, sociological research and reform. One hundred years after Arnold, Bergman has set his film in Sweden, the ordered, superefficient society of the future where “everything has been neatly arranged, all cracks have been stopped up, it has all gone like clockwork,” as Johan laments about his marriage. “We have died from lack of oxygen.
Not that in any ideological way Scenes from a Marriage is exclusively about the soul of man under socialism. (I suspect a slightly more efficient state capitalism would do quite as well.) The parental state, extending the smothering accomplished by Johan’s possessive parents, does to him what the parental corporation does to people we know, or the public schools to children, or the machinery of welfare to modern-day paupers. It is an agent of impotence, as Illich has argued, and as power of person is lost, relationships of all kinds become trivialized. As Bergman puts it, such a social order is based on humilia’ tion. In their admirably regulated form of social life. Marianne comes to discover an implied brutality. And she dreams of amputation; her daughter, of war.
If this is so, the cure for impotence is not more faith in mere mechanism -- in her case, schemes from the consciousness movement for reprocessing the self. It is not self-help and healthy habits that endanger, but the development in our time of autosalvation, with its reach that never exceeds its grasp? We are inundated these days with best-selling testimonials to the self-reflexive cure, as though the personal journey alone can sustain the creature’s meaning. Although at times Scenes seems to be administering the physic of the consciousness movement in rather heavy doses, the film is too complex to be dismissed as a celebration of “How to Save Your Own Life” in the mode of Erica Jong, Jerry Rubin or Gail Sheehy.
Autosalvation may appear to elude the larger oppressive technologies of “the system,” one’s parental programming, and other “schooling” schemes. But in fact the private processing of the self can reiterate this style of manipulation on the small scale. And personal technologies break no private faith with the public belief in technique to solve our problems, a belief that curiously persists despite our underlying despair of the social chaos. And if the method is faulty, so is the message. As Christopher Lasch also points out, new therapies’ solutions are tautological, self-defeating to the extent that they advise people “not to make too large an investment in love and friendship, to avoid excessive independence on others, and to live for the moment -- the very conditions that created the crisis of personal relations in the first place” (New York Review of Books [September 30, 1976]).
To those who take their moral imperatives from the consciousness movement and find their highest wisdom in its survivalist precepts, this film speaks a warning word. Without a coherent set of values that transcends the personal bog, how can even the best-informed choose well among the array of available techniques for self-improvement? More to the point of Christian ministry, how can private technologists so busily exerting themselves in the cause of their own freedom hear the word that they are gifted, redeemed, chosen? Bergman’s ailing people strive to treat themselves in the silence of that word.
Johan’s urbane little lecture to the interviewer in scene one shows at the outset the fatal confusion of techniques without values. “Are you afraid of the future?” she asks.
Johan: If I stopped to think I’d be petrified with fear. Or so I imagine. So I don’t think. I’m fond of this cozy old sofa and that oil lamp. They give me an illusion of security which is so fragile that it’s almost comic. I like Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” though I’m not religious, because it gives me feelings of piety and belonging. Our families see a lot of each other and I depend very much on this contact, as it reminds me of my childhood when I felt I was protected. I like what Marianne said about fellow-feeling. It’s good for a conscience which worries on quite the wrong occasions. I think you must have a kind of technique to be able to live and be content with your life. In tact, you have to practice quite hard not giving a damn about anything. The people I admire most are those who can take life as a joke. I can’t. I have too little sense of humor for a feat like that. You won’t print this, will you?
Some of the schemes that string together the people in this marriage are classic: the poetry of religion in place of religious passion, childish family-feeling, sympathy as an antidote to guilt, mockery to subdue the soul’s hunger pains. Unfortunately for Johan, he does think. His articulate awareness of his situation is, the sine qua non of all other techniques, and both partners have it in abundance. They have both been, moreover, “so goddamn well-behaved and sensible and balanced and cautious,” as he says of himself. And yet: “I don’t know.” That is the parallel theme. “I don’t know anything.”
Besides these age-old schemes and scores of their moment-to-moment rationalizations, there are certain formulas appropriate to each character, and both exhibit the withdrawal symptoms of the ‘70s. For Johan it is the cynical rejection of politics and the attempt to embrace meaninglessness (the other side of his sentimentality). For Marianne it is personal survival, couched in some of the language of women’s liberation. But there is grace as well as work-righteousness of technique: his saving grace is the occasional insight that he needs something to believe in; hers is insight in redeeming moments of fellow-feeling.
These laws and graces are thoroughly discussed in the film, for Scenes from a Marriage is almost all talk: language is the primary means these characters have for establishing order. But it is always breaking down, as the dialogue rushes and jerks along from one formulation of ‘the problem, “the truth,” and ‘the solution” to another. That onrushing reality of contradictory, transient talk -- coupled with relentless camera closeups and the film’s minimal formal elements -- eliminates aesthetic distance. As a result we are plunged into the immediate necessities of inventing order, as Marianne and Johan seem to improvise their lives. It is time to look more closely at the ways they do so.
“The world is going to the devil and I claim the right to mind my own business,” Johan declares to the interviewer. “It makes me sick to think of these new salvation gospels. Whoever controls the computers will win the game” Johan prefers “the unpopular view of live and let live.” Hell he describes as “a place where no one believes in solutions any more” -- despite, perhaps because of, computer power. After he has left Marianne he revisits her, boasting of a newfound freedom inside himself, away from the politics that failed: “Do you know what my security looks like?” he asks her. “I think this way; loneliness is absolute. . . . You can invent fellowship on different levels, but it will still only be a fiction about religion, politics, love, art, and so on.” For several years he has tried one common cure for emptiness: an affair with a younger woman, He tells Marianne he is “learning to accept with a certain satisfaction how pointless it all is.”
While it is Marianne who is most directly influenced by the consciousness movement and the belief in technique, Johan is implicated in two ways. His professional work seems to involve him in the use of technology for effecting behavioristic solutions to personality problems. Thus he talks about feeling in a clinical way, with the impersonality of his lab reports. His projects at the institute have no personal meaning, and they are useless in helping him with his own problems.
Johan is implicated in the consciousness movement in a more philosophical sense than Marianne. Appropriately older than she, he is a person who stands in a de profundis tradition that stretches back through Sartre and Camus to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. He learns that his existential awareness does not give him self-transcendence and that his personal choices do not define his humanity -- his alternatives in this society seem so meaningless. He strikes one as Victorian in some of his attitudes and needs, modern in his attempt and failure to imagine Sisyphus happy. His angst prevents him from buying into self-discovery gospels, and his agnosticism from accepting conventional religious solutions. Like Matthew Arnold’s generation he seems stranded between two faiths, one dead or dying, the other powerless to be born. Like the modern psychiatrist Dysart in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, he cannot take the leap of faith “on to a whole new track of being” he suspects is there.
When Marianne reacts skeptically to Johan’s nihilist manifesto, he retreats characteristically: “It’s nothing but words. You put it into words so as to placate the great emptiness.” But beneath his formulations of an antiformula stretches the wasteland of his pain. His emptiness hurts, he tells Marianne in the next breath, echoing Sartre: “You’d think it might . . . give you mental nausea. But my emptiness hurts physically. It stings like a burn,” Nonetheless, he continues to rant against “a lot of loose talk nowadays” that he sees as faddish idealism. Instead of Paula’s “astonishing” political faith. Johan tries to embrace a political faithlessness that suits his own personal ennui, itself a kind of debilitated laissez-faire of the spirit which nonetheless fails to sustain him through all his other adulteries.
Once an ardent political activist, Marianne is now in law (a career imposed by her parents), but she is not pleading the cause of the oppressed as she had once dreamed. As a divorce lawyer, she plays the social role of mopping up the messes rather than working for creative social change so that relationships might be more humane and lasting. Though kind, intelligent and well intentioned, Marianne in this work is the public facilitator of the transience from which she personally suffers.
Talking with the interviewer about love, Marianne rejects the formula of I Corinthians 13 as an impossible ideal -- useful only as an impressive “set piece to be read out at weddings and other solemn occasions. . . . Instead, she has adjusted “love” to a workable formula in the modern situation:
I think it’s enough if you’re kind to the person you’re living with. Affection is also a good thing. Comradeship and tolerance and a sense of humor. Moderate ambitions for one another. If you supply those ingredients, then . . . love’s not so important [emphasis added].
Marianne and Johan have all these things; yet their marriage falls apart. The lawyer talks the talk of the new minimalism, and like Johan’s pared. down formula for the Lone Self, it is an aesthetically shapely scheme which may suffice the eye but does not save the soul. Marianne’s scheme offers no comfort in her remorse over the abortion, no compensatory wisdom for Johan as his career fails him. And how can that ideal marriage contract’s list account for the pain and danger of Mrs. Jacobi, a late-middle-aged client who comes to Marianne’s office for a divorce in order to take a step toward recovering her sense of living? In this chilling encounter, Mrs. Jacobi explains haltingly that she and her husband are “hindering each other in a -- fatal way.” Even her five senses are failing her: “Music, scents, people’s faces and voices. Everything’s getting meaner and grayer, with no dignity.” Much later, when Marianne is undergoing psychoanalysis and is “trying hard to learn how to talk” about herself, she discovers the Mrs. Jacobi in Marianne and writes in her diary:
In the snug little world where Johan and I have lived so unconsciously, taking everything for granted, there is a cruelty and brutality implied which frightens me more when I think back on it. Outward security demands a high price: the acceptance of a continuous destruction of the personality. (I think this applies especially to women; men have somewhat wider margins.)
This, too, is formula -- note the professional tone in a personal journal -- but in insight it represents an advance on the old Marianne.
In earlier scenes she, too, tries common cures for marital ennui: the fantasy of having a baby, dreams of exotic vacations. And she clings to the marriage in a neurotic way. In the third scene, when Johan announces that he is leaving her, she pleads with him over and over again: “I think we could repair our marriage. I think we could find a new form for our life together.” But to find a new form does not necessarily escape the tyranny of technique. Johan finds so irritating the fact that she is the sort of perfectionist who would want to go over their former life with a fine-tooth comb to dig up all routine and negligence . . . talk over the past . . . find where we’ve gone wrong.” Throughout this scene all the inevitable rituals of their life together still go on: they must discuss what Johan should wear on his trip with Paula, what to do about the car, the plumber, the dentist, father’s birthday -- what to tell the cleaning woman. Just as in all their married life, these rituals on the night and morning of his impending departure are Marianne’s desperate remedies to placate the great emptiness. “It’s all so unreal.” she tells him, dazed, but her efficient marital formulas cannot prevent his escape out of all this clockwork marriage.
Bergman is fascinated by what he calls “the analyzing and clarifying process of the psyche.” The major movement of this film is Marianne’s growth toward self-discovery and freedom from demanding relationships with others. Part of what that freedom requires is the dismissal of religion, which in her experience had been a vicious mechanism for destroying the person. Her childhood attempts at self-assertion, she writes in the diary, were deformed
with injections of a poison which is one hundred percent effective: bad conscience. First towards Mother, then towards those around me, and, last but not least, towards Jesus and God. I see in a flash what kind of person I would have been had I not allowed myself to be brainwashed.
The problem in this film in which it is so difficult to determine the truth of utterances is that Marianne is oversimplifying, countering their technique with one of her own. Like Jerry Rubin in his book Growing (Up) at Thirty-Seven, she harps on her conditioning as though growing up were mainly a matter of inventing counterpropaganda to the lies her parents told her. In the violent drunk scene, Marianne’s scenario of outraged victim -- “fighting against hopeless odds all the time” -- is played out in a grotesque way; she uses it as an excuse for vicious and childish attacks on Johan, verbally kicking him when he is already down.
Her other extreme on the religion question is another form of dependence. During this scene she admits to Johan, I even turned religious for a time and prayed to God to let me have you back.” One is reminded of Ibsen’s innocent Hedvig, who said her prayers only at night because “in the morning it’s light and there’s nothing to fear.” Or more to the point here, one is reminded of Johan’s attraction for the St. Matthew Passion. These people’s deities reflect their society’s utilitarian ethic. Like the pornographic technology Marianne turns to briefly to ease her sexual tensions when Johan is gone, these clockwork gods can be discarded and replaced with other techniques for self-pleasuring. Either they can be discarded or they must be, as pleasurable or painful. They do not transcend. Interestingly, “bad conscience” continues to humiliate, intruding into their conversations long after it has been officially banished with counterpropaganda.
Much of Marianne’s recovery is based on helpful feminist and psychoanalytic interpretations of what is wrong with the conventional female model. Marianne was brought up to be agreeable; she realizes that her compliance has been dishonest and cowardly, an escape from the pains of creating the self. So the female eunuch strikes out: she transforms Johan’s old study into a room of her own, buys smart clothes that she likes herself in, discovers more joy of sex (without that “rubbish” about the body’s sanctity), refuses to play old roles, learns to express anger, teaches her daughters to be “honest” though they are spoiled and wayward, draws up her own divorce papers, remarries for ambition and sex, and learns to relish casual relationships with men. It is a veritable catalogue of liberationist cliches.
We are not necessarily directed toward damning Marianne for any of this: on the contrary, we admire her freer manner, her joy in living. But the bind is still there: she knows that none of these schemes guarantees her happiness. To Bergman’s credit his film is much more than a cinematic manifesto for women’s liberation or an advertisement for the new therapies that might have helped to make it all possible. And one sign that Bergman’s Scenes is not Gail Sheehy’s Passages is that his characters are always sagely advising each other not to overexcite themselves, to cope, not to panic. But of course they do panic; there are, after all, so many good reasons to.
When Johan, for example, pleads that they not sign the divorce papers but try instead to live together again, Marianne -- determined to be free of him forever -- breaks out indignantly: “I don’t want you to entreat me. I’m not certain that I’m not certain that I could cope. That would be the worst thing that could happen” But love and pain are valuable, many-hued emotions; to determine mainly to “cope” with them can be to deplete one’s own resources of sympathy and tenderness for another. As Lasch has observed elsewhere in his critique of Sheehy’s book, negotiating the crises and “passages” of one’s life simply by shedding old selves, not panicking, and taking on new interests denies the human need to grow to maturity through continuity with one’s old selves and the people of the past. Coping, moreover, has political implications: it is the scheme of an outrageous society for anesthetizing its citizens. Marianne advises her clients to cope with life-in-death, not to rage against the dying of the light.
Johan bitterly satirizes the liberation psychology Marianne espouses. But just as her salvation gospels cannot be entirely dismissed, his critique of her cannot be written off merely as rooted in his personal bitterness and his misogynist jealousy of her “boundless female strength,” There is something smug in her existence on a “special plane reserved for women with a privileged emotional life and a happier, more mundane adjustment to the mysteries of life.” But it is primarily Marianne who presents us with the limitations of what he calls the “new women’s gospel.”
In her boozy rage in scene five she parodies herself, showing us the antisocial and self-righteous side of the personal liberation theme:
Do you suppose that I’ve gone through all I have, and come out on the other side and starred a life of my own which every day I’m thankful for, just to take charge of you and see that you don’t go to the dogs because you’re so weak and full of self-pity? . . . I’ve hardened myself.
We can understand this woman’s need to break free of the demands of others who have hampered her self-development. At the same time, her hard words suggest that she has not been able to break utterly free: ‘‘If you knew’’ she goes on, “how many times I’ve dreamt I battered you to death, that I murdered you, that I stabbed you, that I kicked you. If you only knew what a goddamn relief it is to say all this to you at last.’’
In a lower pitch, now patronizing Johan, Marianne lectures him to free himself from the past and make a fresh start as she has. She claims she lives a ‘‘much more honest life now than I’ve ever done.” She does; but Johan asks: “And happier?” In her diary Marianne had written of reawakening the capacity for joy. “All that talk about happiness is nonsense,” she retorts. “My greatest happiness is to eat a good dinner.”
In Marianne’s rage we see the tremendous toll her oppression as a woman has taken. “You’re being utterly grotesque,” Johan justly observes. “So what. That’s how I’ve become,” Marianne flings his charge back,
but the difference between not grotesqueness and yours is that I don’t give in. I intend to keep on, you see. I intend to live in reality just as it is. For if there’s one thing I like more than anything else on earth, it’s to live. . . .
Marianne’s instinct for self-preservation has helped set her free of many old self-destructive patterns, but in another sense she seems grimly bound to her new agenda. Her fierce words seem to declare the doom of joy.
Yet there is another Marianne that likes people, ‘‘fine words and diplomacy.” In the first scene she quietly announces: “I believe in fellow-feeling. . . . If everyone learned to care about each other right from childhood, the world would be a different place, I’m certain of that.” Johan generally denounces this sort of thing as naïve and impractical, but he comes to admit that he simply lacks the imagination for sympathy.
Throughout the film vacillating between the legalistic and the spontaneous, Marianne seems to place the finer human qualities outside the realm of formula. Fidelity, for instance, can never be ‘‘a compulsion or a resolution. . . . Either it’s there or it isn’t” If in John Updike’s recent fiction adultery is presented as a “grace,” it is fidelity that has that inexplicable quality for Marianne -- it is all gift, not calculated as her sex life by the brink has been with Johan. (Faithfulness is also ephemeral, however; and the irony of their final relapse into fidelity is that their last scene together must be snatched on an illicit weekend when their spouses are out of town.) Tired of roles, she wishes more than once “that we could be simpler and gentler with each other,” a wish that comes true in the final episode.
In the sixth scene Johan and Marianne have gained some self-understanding and acceptance. Each offers a little summary, each a kind of resignation. He tells her that he has “found my right proportions. And that I’ve accepted my limitations with a certain humility” He is still a “middle-aged boy who never wants to grow up”: he yearns for mothering. But he listens better, and can give comfort. And he has given up trying to be an existential hero. In the second scene he had announced his refusal “to live under the eye of eternity” But by the film’s end he has overcome the hubris of that technique for coping:
Because I refuse to accept the complete meaninglessness behind the complete awareness. . . . Over and over again I try to cheer myself up by saying that life has the value you ascribe to it. But that sort of talk is no help to me. I want something to long for. I want something to believe in.
Marianne announces a freedom from dependence on her new husband: ‘‘I live with him. That’s fine. I live with you. That’s fine. If I meet some other man who attracts me I can live with him too.” To guide her protean life style this appealing modern woman relies on common sense, feeling, and experience:
“They cooperate.” It is a pat, well-ordered scheme that suffices perhaps for much of her workaday living. But it lacks a reference point outside the self, as life is improvised in the here and now to fill her emotional needs under no eye of eternity. Objectivity dissolves: if she does not feel a problem, it isn’t there. This is a dangerous road, as her nightmare’s images show her: she has voluntarily amputated the hands that might hold on to some saving certainty.
The irony of Johan’s and Marianne’s greatly expanded awareness is that they “don’t know what to do.” In scene five Johan had lamented,
We’re taught everything about the body and about agriculture in Madagascar and about the square root of pi, or whatever the hell it’s called, but not a word about the soul. . . . We’re left without a chance, ignorant and remorseful among the ruins of our ambitions.
Johan declares them both “emotional illiterates.” More accurately, their illiteracy is spiritual, and their kind of omniscience brings a peculiarly modern anguish to the problematic knowledge of good and evil. “With that cold light over all my endeavors,” psychologist Johan comes to recognize, it is impossible to live.
In the final episode he expresses the irreducible sadness underlying the feats of consciousness-raising we have witnessed through five scenes from this marriage: “Think of all the wisdom and awareness that we’ve arrived at through tears and misery. It’s magnificent. Fantastic. We’ve discovered ourselves. . . . Analysis is total, knowledge is boundless. but I can’t stand it.” Suddenly sad, Marianne murmurs: I know what you mean. Even in this touching moment, irony cuts in: inevitably she takes one more little turn in the spiral of knowledge.
At the end of a film which has been so much “loose talk” that mistook itself for reasonable explanations, they find some relief in silence. “Just think if everything is too late,” Marianne says to Johan. “We mustn’t say things like that. Only think them,” he replies. Gentler now, they have given up preaching: there is too much they can’t put into words, indeed had better not: “But if we harp on it too much,” says Jolian, “love will give out.’’
Bergman’s final scene affirms the existence of qualities and experiences that break through the processed self with surprises of joy and terror. In the middle of the night Marianne awakes from a scarifying nightmare in which she has no hands, only “a couple of stumps that end at the elbows.’’ She tells Johan she is “slithering in soft sand. I can’t get hold of you. You’re all standing up there on the road and I can’t reach you.”
He comforts her and after a pause she asks: “Do you think were living in utter confusion? . . That we realize that we’re slipping downhill. And that we don’t know what to do.” ‘‘Yes, I think so, he replies. Makers and doers in all things else, they feel helpless before the mystery of their own lives. ‘‘Think how we exert ourselves all the time,” Marianne muses. ‘‘Have we missed something important? He poses a counterquestion: “What would that be?’’ She can name only the epiphanies of insight that bind her briefly to other people, even strangers:
MARIANNE Sometimes I know exactly how you’re feeling and thinking. And then I feel a great tenderness for you and forget about myself, even though I don’t efface myself. Do you understand what I mean?
JOHAN I understand what you mean.
Not the analytical understanding but the knowledge of the heart makes it possible for Johan and Marianne to do what her parents could never manage: they have touched one another’s souls. Each has found a way of understanding and accepting the saving grace of the other, Johan’s refusal to celebrate meaninglessness and Marianne’s belief in fellow-feeling. Reversing the words of the first scene’s title, Bergman has moved his principal characters from panic to a kind of knowing innocence.
Scene’s from a Marriage leaves unexamined the questions of how to redeem community in the larger society; it seems, as Johan says, to have gone irrevocably to the devil as it has become technically more nearly perfect. This film, writes America reviewer Richard Blake, “makes one wonder about the future of the soul” (August 10, 1974). What could the care of the church have to offer them -- a prophetic word about the strains of their affluence, a comforting word about the God who suffers with them, a liberating word that sets all our deeds and plans under the eye of the eternal and incarnate Lord? Discipleship, not just self-control; koinonia. not only “personal relations”; the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, not just strategies for survival day by day. And for that matter counseling, too -- with methods that incarnate these values, not counteract them.
But would they hear suds gospel tidings, helpless though they know they are? As it is, at the end one can only wonder what will become of Marianne’s complacent soul without the influence of Johan’s angst, his incessant questioning of their routine and the chaos beneath it. And what will become of his ailing soul without Marianne’s instinct for health? Marriage is a scheme for bringing together these spiritual illiterates who need each other with their very earthly and imperfect love. In many of its forms it is not a scheme that works very smoothly in these times, but one cannot help hoping that somewhere in the world, Bergman’s matched sufferers can find a breathing space to try again, in a sevenths scene from their remarriage. And one must imagine them happy.