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.
A Lesson in Love doesn’t exactly start very well, at least from a contemporary perspective: after an arch voiceover telling us to prepare ourselves for a comedy for grownups, we first meet a comely but angry young woman, Susanne (played by Yvonne Lombard), listing the failings of her older lover, the gynaecologist David Erneman (Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand). The lines are sharp, even witty, but it still seems that we’re watching what is essentially a male fantasy: obviously the young, attractive patients of a middle-aged, jaded gynaecologist would fall over themselves to undress for him in private as well as in his practice. It’s not that Bergman spares his protagonist, but whatever criticism is leveled at David, in the end it doesn’t matter. Young women seem magically attracted to him, and even as Susanne berates him for his cynicism, she still can’t help begging him to continue being her lover.
Before getting Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman set, I don’t think I had heard of Dreams, a 1955 drama directed and written by Bergman. Certainly, it doesn’t have the striking, dreamlike imagery of Wild Strawberries or the sexual frankness of Summer with Monika, but I was still surprised to read on Wikipedia that “Dreams is one of the few Ingmar Bergman films to have received lukewarm reviews”. It should come as no surprise that the performances are consistently strong, and especially the female leads make it well worth watching.
Apparently Bergman wasn’t a huge fan of the first film he directed, Crisis (1946), which he called “lousy, through and through”. He wasn’t much kinder to his third, A Ship to India (1947), referring to it as “a major disaster” – except when his producer Lorens Marmstedt called to urge him to cut the worst parts, at which point Bergman rose to his film’s defense: “I informed him that I had no intention of cutting even one foot from this masterpiece.” Bergman may have been young and relatively inexperienced, but obviously he already had an ego to match a much more accomplished director.