For the last week or so, my wife and I have been mostly at home, except for the occasional trip to the shops or a short walk every day to get some fresh air and catch some sun. Other than that, we’ve been good, keeping our social distance, barely seeing, let alone talking, to others. It’s just the two of us.
What better time than this to visit our old friends, Marianne and Johan, everyone’s favourite dysfunctional couple?*
While Saraband does follow up with Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) roughly thirty years after Scenes from a Marriage, it isn’t really a sequel. It doesn’t focus on the relationship between the two, definitely not the way that Scenes from a Marriage did; Marianne and Johan are mostly ancillary characters in Saraband. In addition, while there are references both explicit and implicit to the 1973 TV series (a mention of Paula here, a garish paper lantern there), there are also details that don’t match, such as the age of the characters or their background. These seem less continuity errors or plot holes than an acknowledgement of the fuzziness of memories and selves, however. To some extent, the Johan and Marianne of Saraband are and are not the couple whose relationship we witnessed over a period of ten years, but rather the idea of these characters, our memories of them and feelings towards them, overlaid with the actors playing them, who have grown old themselves.
While Saraband‘s story is more about Johan’s son Henrik and Henrik’s daughter Karin, and about the all too close relationship between Henrik and Karin on the one hand and the loveless relationship between Henrik and Johan on the other, Marianne nonetheless has a strange part to play: in a touch that makes Saraband more immediately theatrical than Scenes from a Marriage ever was, Marianne breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. She is an outsider to the film’s central dysfunctional family and she can observe them with an outsider’s eye, bringing more compassion to what she sees than Johan, Henrik and even Karin can muster.
Without that compassion, even if it is balanced with a more stern outlook at times, Saraband would be an exceedingly bitter film for Bergman to finish his career on. Bergman often has male characters that are more spiteful than his female characters, but Henrik is definitely not someone you want to spend much time with, and old Johan is downright monstrous towards his son. It’s as if Bergman had read the first line of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse”, ignored the rest and then tested how far this could take him. As in his earliest films already, Bergman’s men are too stubborn and not a little self-destructive, and all the compassion Marianne can muster can’t save them from themselves in the long run – though there are moments of grace, little warm lights in the growing darkness, such as when Marianne takes a frightened, naked Johan into her bed.
Seen as a sequel to Scenes from a Marriage, Saraband would be odd and disappointing – though Scenes from a Marriage ended perfectly and didn’t need a sequel as such. At the same time, I found myself more engaged in the scenes between Marianne and Johan, because after Scenes from a Marriage it’s difficult not to feel you know these people. If Bergman had stripped the film of its connections to his earlier work, Saraband might feel more coherent in some ways, but the sheer bitterness would have been difficult to take. There is enough loneliness, guilt and self-reproach in Bergman as it is, so it is both fitting and comforting that in the end we’re left face to face with Marianne, and with Liv Ullmann, with a face that exudes an ineffable solace.
*Actually, I’d say that Marianne and Johan are my second-favourite dysfunctional spouses. The top position still goes to Edward Albee’s Martha and George of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fame.