Scenes from a Marriage S1E1, “Innocence and Panic”

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Bibi Andersson

Johan (Josephson) and Marianne (Ullmann) are hosting a pair of old friends for dinner. Peter (Jan Malmsjo) and Katarina (Andersson) belong very much to the same social stratum as our heroes. Johan is a professor and Marianne a lawyer specializing in family law, which boils down to divorce. Peter and Katarina run a successful business with international presence, although what they sell is never really said. (This will become something of a theme; Johan is in some social science, but I’m darned if I know which one it is.) It does not take very long before Peter and Katarina begin to snipe at one another. The two separate. Johan offers Peter another drink, asks him if he wants to play a little chess. Marianne and Katarina go off together to talk about what the problem is. Everyone comes back together, sitting, as they have, diagonally from their spouses. Earlier in the evening, during dinner, Johan was fielding Katarina’s teasing jokes about running off with her. He isn’t contributing to that genre of conversation any longer; in fact, he hasn’t said much of anything since the ladies rejoined the men in the living room. Marianne is herself a little leery, but trying to keep the peace. She fails. It becomes clear that Peter and Katarina are going to have it out. Katarina is too bossy for Peter, so strong and domineering that he feels edged out of everything. But you won’t divorce me, she says. I’m too smart to take any of the bad business bets, and you need me to run those. Somewhere near the height of battle, before Katarina throws her drink at Peter and storms off, the camera remembers Marianne and Johan. Marianne looks exasperated, as if there’s a limit to how much more of this unseemly, impolite bickering she can take. Johan seems bemused; he half-shrugs at his wife, eyes wide, as if he simply has no clue how to address the fight. He could no more separate Peter and Katarina than he could separate a pair of wolves fighting over carrion. In their faces we can read the next four and a half hours of this miniseries, which must be near the very top of Bergman’s top-shelf oeuvre. Marianne will be pushed closer and closer to the limits of her endurance, while Johan will survey the situation and try to be as far removed from it as he can wangle.

The miniseries begins with an interview for a woman’s magazine, which is a stilted way to begin but of course deeply effective for us as viewers. The interviewer, who we discover is an old school-friend of Marianne’s, asks Johan to talk about himself a little. I couldn’t possibly, he says, before rushing into a far more detailed response than I think any of us could muster up at a moment’s notice. Marianne doesn’t talk about herself nearly at all. She is a lawyer – in the ’50s, no less – but has little more to say than reiterating her status as a wife and mother. She bites her lip, chews the inside and outside, purses her lips, smacks them. There’s something edging away at her that is striking at the edge of expression that simply won’t come out. She even appeals to the camera for help.

It’s clear quickly enough that the point of the article is to give its presumably vapid female readership a “real-life” marriage to root for. “You have to make a statement on love,” the interviewer says. “That’s what this series is all about.” It’s one heckuva statement for Scenes from a Marriage to throw out there; personally, I would have said that the miniseries, in one word, is about intimacy. But it’s noteworthy that Marianne cannot quite get her own thoughts about love out there. She uses the word “contentment” as synonymous with happiness, which is noteworthy because “compassion” becomes a dirty word almost immediately; minutes earlier, when she was not in the room, Johan argued that contentment means something much more like apathy. She recalls 1 Corinthians 13 when contentment falls through. (She’s disquieted about that last, though she agrees the words are pretty; Paul doesn’t give us a lot of credit, she complains not unreasonably.) At least she tries. Johan can’t help but look at his life secondhand, rather like our friend Charles Ryder. Johan likes to spend time with his parents and with his in-laws because it gives him a feeling of familial togetherness. He’s not religious, but he likes to listen to certain music because it gives him a happy little feeling of piety. With his pipe in hand and his properly academic beard, he seems every bit the cheerful prof who can’t quite be bothered to take anything seriously. It’s off-putting. Josephson can absolutely be charming, and without him behind Johan the character might scare us off totally in the first fifteen minutes. The charm is paper-thin, though, translucent enough to let us scan the arrogant and self-assured fellow who presents himself so differently from his humble, taciturn wife.

In the third sequence of this first episode, the “Panic” begins to overload “Innocence.” Johan and Marianne are in bed, reading, when Marianne gives her husband some unexpected news. She went off the pill for a little while without telling him and she is now pregnant with their third child. He’s forty-two and she’s thirty-five; in other words, they are hardly overage for parenting, and while their two daughters are both preteens, seen for the first and only time in the first few minutes of this episode, they would not be the first parents to have a youngest child by happy accident. Marianne tells Johan, whose reaction is totally neutral. She’s leaning towards an abortion. Then she isn’t. She bounces back and forth between the two, casting her line, hoping to get some sort of response from her husband. It’s really up to you, he says. It’s your body, and you’re the one who’d be more affected than me. In the end, she does get the abortion. He visits her for a few minutes, tells her that he really has to run, says they’ll go on a trip and leave the kids behind, tells her she’ll forget all about it (“I’m convinced you will” is his clinical, almost sterile add-on), and leaves her sobbing in her hospital bed.

Scenes from a Marriage is a five-hour miniseries in six episodes; it doesn’t have an awful lot of time to tells its story, but then again it doesn’t have to tell any more than it wants to, what with its emphasis on scenes. This first scene does not move the plot anywhere. It seems that they really do forget about the abortion later on, just as Johan predicts, and this is the last we see of Peter and Katarina. “Innocence and Panic” succeeds as a marvelous tone-setter. Although the marriage seems to be in a more or less stable place, it does not take much imagination to see how the two of them could be tipped into something much more toxic. Johan, in his interview, makes a point of his amused detachment from his own life; what the article does not pick up on his detachment from his wife. Marianne proves to be a much more cunning customer than she appears to be in that first interview. Somewhere along the line, it’s clear that she’s learned how to play dumb; perhaps it was an effect of her childhood, or maybe it was during her first marriage, which is presented during the interview as little more than a tidbit, but which I personally found a little strange. (Johan, incidentally, dated a pop star, which Marianne says inflated his ego to dangerous levels.) She’s also learned to block people off, to save her strongest emotional upheavals for the times when she can be alone. She refuses to really let the interviewer in, or even to pretend to in the way Johan does so easily. And she waits until Johan has left, obviously desperate to get away from the physical reminders of his wife’s little surgery, to pull the covers over her head but to leave her clenching, reaching hands out. She does not cry, or give any sign that she means to, until her husband is gone. In terms of how much heartbreak we see, this episode ranks fairly low on the Scenes from a Marriage emo power rankings. But the sight of a woman waiting for her husband to leave before she feels safe or prepared to let her emotions run their course is nightmarish, our first proof of the unsettling events to come.

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