We recently watched the Netflix-produced Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach. It’s a tough watch: you quickly develop sympathy for the two likeable main characters (played beautifully by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson), and when a legal system that seems to prioritise making a buck over helping two people separate as amicably as possible starts working on them it hurts to see how they are twisted into nastier, pettier, crueler and more antagonistic versions of themselves, particularly when a child is involved.
Where Marriage Story is about the film’s leads becoming the people they never wanted to be due to the legal system, though, the two main characters of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage don’t need lawyers to become enemies: intimacy, fueled by insecurity and resentment, becomes a more cutting and more precise weapon than the sharpest scalpel.
Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) are a married couple approaching middle age. They’re perhaps not happy, but they are content, comfortable and not a little complacent. Things are okay, as they have always been, and as you approach 40, you don’t expect bliss or ecstasy. Leave that sort of thing to naive teenagers – because, after all, Marianne and Johan have it better than their own parents, they are modern and self-aware, they understand the limitations of the institution of marriage, so they don’t expect it to be something it isn’t. They are realists, they don’t fool themselves, and when there’s a disagreement, they talk about it, like the adults they are.
Where does it begin to go wrong? Things are already bad when Johan confesses to Marianne that he’s been having an affair – though what makes this worse is that he follows up on it with bitter recriminations and the news that he is leaving the day after so that he and his new flame can move to Paris for the next six months, and when Marianne calls friends to ask their counsel, they already know all about the affair. The signs are already there from the beginning of the series, though: Johan’s quips that hint at him not particularly liking people, most likely including himself and Marianne; the pauses Marianne makes when talking about their marriage that are sometimes just a bit too long, and the smiles that are just a bit too forced; the way that Johan seeks confirmation from others only to dismiss it in his professorial ways when it is given; or the growing look of recognition on Marianne’s face when she listens to a client of hers (Marianne is a divorce lawyer – in this case certainly the Chekhov’s Gun of professions) talk about a marriage that is lacking in any genuine affection.
Johan and Marianne are written, directed and acted with precision and specificity, yet their relationship and the way it develops, often for the worse, feels universal. It also feels current and modern even as some of the details and plot points may seem decidedly ’70s. What is surprising is the series’ emotional impact: Marriage Story – whose overall shape is not too dissimilar from Scenes from a Marriage – is clearly the more sentimental film by comparison, in part because Baumbach’s film features Charlie (Driver) and Nicole’s (Johansson) young son Henry (Azhy Roberton) much more prominently than Johan and Marianne’s two young daughters are featured in Bergman’s tale. (They are usually hinted at, for instance in an amusing shot of their room, whose floor is covered almost entirely with a mess of Donald Duck comics.) Bergman is not a sentimentalist and his filmmaking always keeps an ironic distance to its characters. Nonetheless by the time the sixth and final episode begins we have spent so much time with the characters portrayed by Ullmann and Josephson, and we have seen them hurt each other so much exactly because of their lived-in intimacy, we fear to see another fight between them, and we feel relief tinged with sadness when the episode turns out to be much less depressing than its title – “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World” – promises.
As in Baumbach’s film, the couple we’ve watched falling apart and often tearing each other to shreds along the way end up in a place where they might indeed be much better suited to being married to one another than when they first got married. Being married and breaking up over the space of many difficult, painful years is the learning process that teaches Johan and Marianne how they could become two people better suited to being together, at the same time showing them and us why they shouldn’t be.