Scenes from a Marriage S1E3, “Paula”

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson

(My thoughts on the previous episode are here.)

“I came here to tell you something. I’ve gone and fallen in love. It’s absurd, and probably a big mistake. Most probably a big mistake.”

At the end of this episode, Johan is packing up for a trip to Paris. Marianne has gotten up with him to help him pack. He comes out of the bathroom. He has a split nail that she decides to help him take care of; he holds out his hand and complains about it hurting like a child. Have you seen my copy of Albert Speer’s memoirs? he asks. She lent it to someone else, she says. She thought she was finished. (Why Johan is reading Speer’s memoirs is a question that remains tantalizingly unanswered through the rest of the miniseries. It may be the greatest flaw of Scenes from a Marriage.) What have you been doing with your nails anyway? she asks, and Johan huffs off. Then we remember, having forgotten for thirty seconds, that Johan is leaving Marianne for a tryst with some other woman.

The one where Johan leaves is the first episode of three consecutive ones to feature just the two principals on screen. Of course, the title and a telephone call late in the hour make a farce of this idea that there are just the two of them in the episode. No matter how much the camera sits, in noose-like close-ups, on Marianne, or how it emphasizes Johan’s physical distance from his wife, there are more people in this conversation than just them. Their daughters, seen only for a few moments in the first episode, are laid into the conversation by Marianne and dashed away by Johan, like barrels loaded onto a sailing ship carried away by a furious wave in the first tempest. Marianne, trying to reach a friend after Johan has left in the haze of dawn, gets the friend’s husband instead, and without having anyone else to turn to in the moment she unloads her story on Fredrik. Her conversation with Fredrik makes him a character, if a totally unwilling one. And above all else, there is Paula.

It is sickeningly ironic, and maybe a little funny, that her name is Paula. In “Innocence and Panic,” Marianne, grasping for a definition of what love is, turns to I Corinthians 13 and the Apostle Paul. Later on, Johan decides to grasp for some definition of love by turning to a young woman, some years his junior, named Paula. Although only half his age, she already has a long history of unhappy and ill-fated romances. They met at a conference. The two of them have already stolen some time, a trip that Johan covered up with a lie about having gone to some other conference. They have had sex in Johan and Marianne’s house; the cleaning lady caught them. (One is reminded of When Harry Met Sally..., as Harry recounts the story of movers coming into the conversation about his wife leaving him. “So humiliating,” Jess says; in Scenes from a Marriage, no one has to say how humiliating that moment is for Marianne.) Marianne’s reaction to her husband’s relatively cool of way of telling her that he’s leaving because he’s in love with another woman is fairly subdued, all things considered. Her initial reaction is that she should have seen it coming; she regrets not having had a little more foresight. The only person she gets angry at during this entire night and following morning is Fredrik who, like the cleaning lady, knew. Johan does not get any of her anger. He receives no blows and only has to field softballs about love and children and family.

Two shots stand out to me in this hour. One is of a sort that Bergman has basically eschewed in the first episodes, and we can see why he’s saved it for this moment. Zooms are difficult to do well; there’s just too much corniness that we tend to associate with them as viewers. The dolly zoom in Vertigo is notable not just because that’s just about the first instance of it, but because it works on a place. By simulating Scottie’s vertigo, we get a deep understanding of the character. But zooms on people are much harder. The actor has to work harder, knowing s/he is about to have every pore in focus. The speed of a zoom is necessarily abrupt, and “abrupt” is not usually a good look for a movie unless it’s going for horror or comedy. But Bergman zooms perfectly, aligning it with Liv Ullmann’s face and a horrifying piece of trivia that Johan is dropping on her. He has already said, clearly, that he is going to leave for Paris in the morning with Paula. He has not given any time frame for his absence; from my vantage point, I assumed he would be gone for a couple of weeks. But he tells Marianne that he will be gone for eight or nine months, and the zoom is sheer perfection for that information. So is Ullmann, whose look of pain I would have guessed was inexpressible before she went and expressed it. The other shot from this episode that I think stands out calls back to her habit of occasionally appealing to the camera. She’s done it before in other episodes, and she does it again, subtly, in this moment. After Johan tells her that he’s in love with another woman and that it’s serious, the cut back to her while she wears those enormous glasses which magnify her eyes is stunning. She looks at him, but she is looking at us as well. (Somewhere, Bergman and Sven Nykvist are high-fiving each other.) No matter who she’s looking at in this moment, she is clearly crying out for help. In both cases it’s a different Marianne than we see even earlier on in the episode. She is downright perky as Johan surprises her with a visit at their cottage; she wasn’t expecting him until the next day, and she is so glad to see him that she doesn’t notice that something is obviously wrong. She may as well be excited about the potential trips they can go on again, as clueless to the fact of her husband’s infidelity as she was to the fact that her mother would never let her skip Sunday lunch at her house.

Johan, interestingly enough, seems to be much the same person as before as well. Nothing’s changed, in particular, about either one of them. He even says that he loves her as much as ever (not long after telling her that he’s wanted to leave her for four years), maybe even more than he loves Paula. He still tells her that he knows what she’s thinking as much as he ever has. For the second episode in a row, he says something outlandish and offensive but then walks it back, ruefully mumbling that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. Even the fact that he’s having an affair is not news to us; it was painfully clear in the last episode, when he picked up the phone to call someone but then set it down again, deciding to let those chips fall where they would. What’s new is his fierceness. In “Innocence and Panic,” he phrases his complaints with a wry, put-on world-weariness. In “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug,” he veers from melancholy to absurdity. In “Paula,” he has fangs. What his affair comes down to, as much as anything else, is how bored he is with his wife and children. He is sick to death of “Christmas, Easter, birthdays, name days,” etc. He frequently sneers at what their parents, their friends will say; these considerations are presumably beneath his concern, although he is, pointedly, not the person who will need to take the questions. He cannot stand doing the same things over and over again, he says. But just last episode, he refused to go to a new place with his wife on an exciting vacation, and even the imposition of her driving to work with him rather than separately annoyed him. It’s not the routines of his life that sicken him, but how bored he is. It’s why he is hellbent on doing something self-destructive and delicious with a woman barely more than a child, why he does not care that he is behaving badly, abandoning not merely his wife but his children as well. He knows perfectly well that what he is doing is, from virtually any standard of morality, wrong; he also doesn’t want to care. Indulging himself in some midlife masturbation is the only thing that matters to him, and where he has been merely tiresome before, he becomes disgusting now. (Watching bourgeois marriages fall apart is my absolute viewing sweet spot, but reactions like that one always make me wonder how secretly prudish I am. Yet “Paula” presents one villain, one victim, and no heroes. Marianne doesn’t deserve what’s happening to her simply because she was clueless.)

Before Midnight, which is the only other movie I can think of which has a scene anything like this episode of Scenes from a Marriage, explodes off the screen because we have spent hours and years with Jesse and Celine before they finally bring all of those hours and years to bear in a little hotel room in Greece. They met in Vienna, renewed themselves in Paris, and stayed there for the next decade or so before taking this vacation. What Before Midnight knows, and perhaps might even have learned cinematically, if not in literal practice, from Scenes from a Marriage, is that it is much easier for a couple to start fighting once they’ve left the confines of their home. This episode takes place not in the comfortable house in town, but in their vacation cottage by the water. In this different yet familiar place, different things can happen to people who, just a day before, were much more familiar with each other than they are now.

3 thoughts on “Scenes from a Marriage S1E3, “Paula”

  1. I found the Speer’s memoirs moment laugh out loud funny in perhaps one of the least funny hours of television ever recorded. The even more tantalizing question, to me, is why is Marianne’s mother so desperate to borrow a copy?

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