Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the Golden Horse Bergman Centennial Retrospective.
After seeing Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap 1973), I think I finally get what Bergman is doing.
The retrospective screened all six episodes back to back with one intermission in five hours, but there was lots of breathing space due to the fact that the episode opening and closing sequences were kept in. Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) have been married, ostensibly happily, for ten years when Johan suddenly falls for another woman and decides to leave. Turns out, their happiness was based on a refusal to air dirty laundry. They each develop their own lives while keeping in touch with each other, and they end up cheating with each other on their respective spouses.
The entire plot, even the concepts of marriage and divorce, constitute the MacGuffin for what Bergman is really after: dialectical power struggles. As hinted in Persona (1966), Bergman’s specialty seems to be the reversal in power dynamics; here, meek Marianne turns out to be the stronger person—but is she? Each time they fight, at least two reversals occur, so that one is stronger on the intellectual plane, for instance, but weaker on the emotional one. This makes for truly spellbinding dialogue and electrifying performances, and reading the subtitles is like reading a top-notch Sartre play, such as The Devil and the Good Lord.
But up to the very end, the two are unable to transcend their contradictory dynamic, merely ending (again, like in Persona) asymptotically close to one another. This makes the characters merely two-dimensional. Had Bergman but let them escape the dialectic, they might have shown him what it truly means to be human.