Scenes from a Marriage S1E2, “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug”

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Gunnel Lindblom

(My thoughts on the previous episode are here.)

Of the six episodes of this miniseries, “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug” is the shortest by a good ten minutes. Once again, despite giving us some time with Johan and Marianne in the early going, it waits until the second half to really hone in on the two of them. It’s also the first episode to speak to their routines, without the hustle and bustle of “interviews” or “dinner parties” or “abortions” to get in the way. The two of them are getting up when Marianne, in a good humor this morning, says that she wants to cancel Sunday dinner with her mother. Johan is skeptical that it can even be done, for the ritual and the will of Marianne’s mother are strong, but Marianne is adamant. She wants to spend the day with her husband and her daughters; tellingly, she also wants Johan to call, which he is not dumb enough to try. Marianne, before the two of them get ready to go to work, does make the call. It takes about ninety seconds for her mother to come up with reasons to bat her daughter down like a cat plays with a mouse. “The Revolution was smothered at birth,” Johan says, laughing a little bit. It’s a key moment for Marianne, who is the picture of meek self-abnegation; we watch a woman in her early middle age get absolutely swatted down over a whim, unable to get her way even for the slightest of activities. She is undeterred. Her mother may not budge, but she keeps trying on her husband, much to his horror. For the second time in this miniseries, we’re left with an indelible image of silent cruelty brought on by Johan. While Marianne bustles off to wake up the girls, Johan picks up the telephone, thinks about it, and sets it down again. Marianne writhed under her covers; Johan’s face loses its charm and devolves into dismay.

Somewhere along the way, Marianne has been given to understand that the best way to approach unenthusiastic people is to batter them with cheerful abandon. (One is already inclined to blame her unseen mother for that bit of advice, which, nope.) Marianne has decided she’s going to ride into town with Johan; that way they won’t have to take different cars back from the theater. On the drive in, she is sunny and smiling, full of hypotheticals that Johan largely ignores. We should do this all the time. We should cheat on each other. We should lay in bed for a week and cuddle. We can see Ullmann smiling throughout this sequence; Josephson’s face is mostly hidden. Later on, after a somewhat unnerving meeting with a woman coming to Marianne about the divorce she wants, Marianne meets Johan for lunch with a surprise. Let’s go on a bigger trip than the cottage this summer, she says. She shows him pamphlets for trips to the Black Sea, to Japan, to surprisingly affordable places in Africa. Johan is unmoved; he’d rather go to the cottage and fish, and with that the conversation is over. One can imagine that if Marianne really wanted, in her heart of hearts, to go to Africa or Japan, then they might go; one can imagine that if Marianne absolutely had to get out of dinner with her mother over the weekend, then she wouldn’t have gone. But she’s grasping not at specifics but at a feeling. Something must change, but she seems not to care very much what it is. She has no actual goal other than altering their rigmarole, which is too vast a topic to tackle with a vacation or a shared commute or even a cheap affair.

Their lunch date is like a training video for new couples who need to learn how to recognize the warning signs in their partners. Marianne is angling for Johan to care about something, hoping that a change or a surprise or an experience would be enough to shake him out of his torpor. Johan is very nearly honest with his wife at lunch, even though he wants to leave lunch as much as he wanted to leave her hospital bed. He says melancholy, self-pitying things; he wants her to focus on him, not on the trappings of their shared life. He isn’t going to help her get there, clearly, since that would ruin the magic of being known and noticed and understood. But he wants her to figure it out: less Africa, more Johan.

His position calls for a basic conservatism matching his own personal politics. In the first episode, he complains about the government which is too far left for his taste; rare is the episode which does not include at least one complaint about feeling taxed to death. “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug” is the site of his first complaint about “Women’s Lib,” a nebulous concept that he never speaks on with any serious specificity but views as a threat nonetheless. (Amusingly, he starts moaning and groaning about it after seeing A Doll House with Marianne, so you can fill in your own punchline.) While Marianne puts together a quick dinner, he declaims about women generally, saying that they’ve had it good. They’ve been martyrs for so long that he says they’re unwilling to give up that position; for thousands of years, they’ve been the underdog, and that’s much better than being the heavy-handed oppressor. As he lies down on the couch, reaching for some food, he says for the second time in as many episodes that he’s just talking, none of what he’s saying means very much. It’s a strange monologue. It’s the kind of thing that a man says after he’s been caught cheating, or when his wife has said something he takes unnecessary offense to. It’s an overreaction not merely as a fact, but an overreaction because any reaction to nothing is an overreaction. Marianne is mostly silent during this monologue. The charitable explanation is that she knows better than to make something out of nothing when he’s so plainly speaking out of his butt, but one is a little afraid that she thinks he has a right to his chauvinist chatter.

I don’t know what the Swedish word is for “alarm clock,” nor do I think I would understand the literal undertones of the word. I do know that in English, an alarm clock is a secretly terrifying name for a household item. It jolts us out of bed, panics us a little bit before we go out to face the world on time. Before anything else in this episode happens, an alarm clock goes off. From the perspective of fear and trembling, it is a perfect, small way to begin the episode. It also, of course, carries with it the connotations of waking up, starting new, becoming alert. After the events of the episode, it is impossible to imagine that Marianne is still asleep. The next episode will prove that she slept through the first alarm, loud enough to hear even over Johan’s best attempts to muffle it.

2 thoughts on “Scenes from a Marriage S1E2, “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug”

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