Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson
(My thoughts on the previous episode are here.)
“The Vale of Tears,” like “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug,” acts like a ligament in the miniseries, although there’s much more change that occurs in this installment than in the second episode. “The Vale of Tears” echoes several of the ideas which had already been seen in “Paula,” albeit much more calmly. Johan and Marianne are still into one another, in that rocky field where the couple both needs and loathes the familiarity of having been married for several years. It’s been the several months that Johan promised Marianne when he shows up at her door; she’s wearing mascara, a “girlish” blouse, and has her hair styled. They sit on the same couch where they were interviewed about their perfect marriage in the first scene of the first episode, a far cry from the terrible little apartment that Johan shares with Paula, which he claims fits his own vision of Hell. They eat dinner together and never raise their voices. Johan’s affair with Paula is disintegrating. Marianne has a lover of her own and has been making advances with a therapist she sees with some frequency. The tide, in short, has turned. In episodes 2 and 3, Marianne needed Johan desperately. Here, for the first time, we can see Johan grabbing – in some cases literally – at his wife, seeking the attention he sought at the restaurant a couple of episodes before but now without any of the high ground he might have been able to claim for himself at the time.
“The Vale of Tears” prizes talk about what, in the absence of a stable marriage, gives Johan and Marianne a feeling of security. Johan, who opted out, argues that a person must find security within himself. What that means is never brought to light in any significant way, and it’s an ironic thing for a man to say who dramatically left his wife and two children for a woman not many years older than the kids. There are two Johans in that statement. The first is the pompous man he was with Marianne; the second is the man who is deeply insecure and has to talk up his beliefs to remind himself that he believes them at all. In this episode, just as he did in “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug,” he makes a comment and then backs off of it, saying that he’s only taking to hear himself talk, that he doesn’t really believe the things he’s saying. He spends full minutes of this episode working hard to try to get Marianne to have sex with him; the two of them end up on the floor together, very near to one another, and only a focused rejection from Marianne (“If you keep insisting, you have to go”) keeps them from doing it on carpet.
Marianne’s feeling of security, presumably, used to be in Johan and family and all of those other bourgeois things which characterize ’50s and ’60s homemaker. Yet her therapy has proven to her that she has been lying to herself about where her feelings of security come from in a way which is deeply interesting. Bergman has not done much more than point and shoot up close for most of these episodes, which is no problem at all when he’s directing and Sven Nykvist is behind the camera, but he does something which dazzling when Marianne goes to dig up her notebook that her therapist has her keep. She reads a few moments, reaches the phrase, “I found a school picture of me when I was ten,” and then all of a sudden we are in a world of old black and white photographs, mostly of Ullmann but later in her monologue a few of Josephson, dating back to when they were children. Simply watching Ullmann read this monologue would have been good. Hearing her reflect on her mother’s domineering forms of punishment (which would be the centerpiece of Autumn Sonata, the marvelous double-Bergman picture starring Liv Ullmann as a thoroughly dominated daughter), of her cygnet status, of her awakening to sexual desire and her total inability to comprehend it is made that much more powerful by seeing the documentation. It’s a precious moment in film: descriptions pale because it simply must be experienced visually. Ullmann’s voice is quiet over this slideshow, but she has a resounding moment late in the monologue:
I never thought, “What do I want?” Only, “What did he want?” Now I feel excited about discovering what I actually want. In order to feel secure, I paid with my life.
For the first time, security for Marianne has much more with doing the things and feeling the things she wants to feel than it does with helping other people feel what they want to feel. Self-discovery has come to be her major motivation in her early middle age. Johan may say that security is found within oneself, but it is Marianne who actually believes it. Mostly. She reaches a point in her journal where she reads that she still would have married Johan even if she had been more attuned to her own needs and desires, looks over, and sees that he is asleep on the couch. I’ve had a surgery before that required a pump to be placed in my abdomen and then removed before I left the hospital. It took three yanks to get all of it uncoiled and out of my body entirely. I was reminded of that feeling when I saw that in this moment of profound vulnerability, nothing had changed at all.
There’s more that happens in this episode; for example, we hear Marianne on the phone with David, the man she’s with now who is, maybe understandably, not thrilled about the fact that his girlfriend is alone with her horny husband; Johan and Marianne get real close to having sex again. Importantly, Marianne speaks openly and unambiguously about a divorce that Johan is in no hurry to give her. But it is that moment with Marianne which stands out in particular for its frankness and dark humor, the way Marianne exhales when she sees that Johan must have dropped off some minutes before. Even when Scenes from a Marriage has been about her, it always seems to come back in some meaningful way to Johan. It happens again here, because why wouldn’t it? “The Vale of Tears,” from stem to stern, recognizes that neither person is quite so secure as they want to be. More than any episode thus far, it gives us a chart to track the movements of the tectonic plates of the marriage, slowly subducting one another.