The Compleat Ingmar #11: Scenes from a Marriage (1974)

The film version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is almost three hours long, but watching it roughly one month after finishing the TV series, my first and foremost impression is this: the film feels fast. Not rushed, necessarily, but watching it is a sharper, more focused experience than watching the six episodes of the series, but also one that feels strangely breathless. It makes me wonder why Criterion decided on that particular sequence; my recommendation would probably be to watch the film first and then the TV series. I am curious, though, what the experience would have been like the other way around, something I’ll never know now.

A surprising result of the film’s faster pace is that this version of the story feels funnier to me. Scenes from a Marriage is by no means a sitcom, but the writing is witty at times, especially in terms of how it exposes Johan’s flaws, his insecurity and need to be admired, first and foremost intellectually but also as a lover. There is a snappiness to the film that the series has much more rarely, but in return the long-form version of Scenes from a Marriage takes more time for the quieter moments, the less verbal interactions between Marianne and Johan. It is striking to sit there watching the film and realise, suddenly, that scenes that seemed quite central to the second episode (Marianne revealing that she’s pregnant again, the couple’s discussion whether to have the baby, Marianne in hospital – a scene that only reveals late that she and Johan finally decided on an abortion) simply don’t happen in the film. Omissions like these aren’t always immediately apparent, but they are felt throughout.

For me, though, it’s not even the length of the film vs the TV series, or the scenes that fell by the wayside, that make the biggest difference. Instead, it’s how the format changes the way we watch the relationship. Neither me nor my wife binge watch television series, and Bergman is most definitely not binge watching material; instead, we saw the six episodes over a period of about a week. Even these relatively short breaks between episodes gave the story a chance to breathe, and they made me feel like time was passing. When Marianne notes that it’s been more than six months since she’s last seen Johan, I process this differently when there’s barely a few seconds between two scenes that are supposed to be half a year apart. The passage of time feels different.

Bergman and his actors don’t use much in the way of make-up to signify how time passes, but we learn from the conversations between Marianne and Johan that ten years lie between the first episode and the last. When the point comes up in the last chapter of the film, I was startled, even though I’d seen that very conversation a month earlier as part of the final episode of the series. In the film, it almost feels like the two protagonists don’t exist in between meetings, in between their dinners, trysts, discussions and fights. In the series, we see scenes from a marriage – in the film, to me it seemed that those scenes are the marriage.

Next up: we revisit those crazy kids Johan and Marianne in 2003’s Saraband, Bergman’s final film. (Don’t worry, though, we’re still a long way away from the end of the Bergman collection!)

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