Scenes from a Marriage S1E5, “The Illiterates”

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson

(My thoughts on the previous episode are here.)

The windowless walls of Johan’s office are utterly bare, a bland taupe that makes the room seem close even when he’s sitting there by himself and which, as the episode carries on, makes it seem like entire setting is closing in on the couple. Scenes from a Marriage is spare even by Bergman’s standards, but there are some memorable and beautiful backdrops where some episodes are set. The summer house where Paula’s name is first said or that inevitable couch where this marriage is introduced via interview are vivid. This is not a setting that sticks for color or shape, but for a Spartan starkness. Marianne may be buoyant, really excited, for the first time in a long time, but lit with fluorescent light and a desk lamp, with no streamers to be found, it seems echo off of the walls. Her hair is different again, for the first time styled beyond what we’d imagine her doing quickly in the morning or sleepily at night. Johan has changed too. He wears glasses, looks thinner, and has given up that pipe for a series of little cigarettes. “The Illiterates” quickly takes those abnormal things away from us. Johan loses the glasses; Marianne’s hair comes out; by the time Johan signs the paperwork, things are much the same as they had been. “I don’t want to start over,” he confesses. “I have no curiosity about what lies ahead.” They may not be on the couch anymore, but the couch has come with them anyway.

In the first episode, a little too much alcohol leads to a lot too much resentment boiling over in Johan and Marianne’s house. However, it had nothing to do with them, but a pair of old chums they were hosting whose marriage had disintegrated like a dinghy in a lake of sulfuric acid. The argument memorably ends when the wife throws her drink in her husband’s face, emphasizing the role of alcohol in loosening their tongues enough to bring them to a fire-breathing altercation. Marianne brings a bottle of brandy along with the divorce papers. She should know better, but then again this entire miniseries has been an exercise in “should have known better.” At first it seems almost helpful—it buoys up Marianne, who is positively flouncing around the office, and seems to have the magical power to manage Johan’s sniffles—but of course it doesn’t end that way. At the end of the hour, as the two of them lean over the divorce papers, as shaken as the viewers must be, the role of the brandy in uncorking those last violent impulses in the two of them can’t be denied. Ipecac could hardly have done more.

The alcohol is important. The kids, who were seen for a moment in the first episode, come back as well. Johan complains that his daughters seem disinterested in him, sometimes even a little malicious. His work feels stale and useless, even by the standard he set of complaining about bureaucracy in the first half of this miniseries. He won’t get that job in America that he felt so sure about in “The Vale of Tears.” The more brandy he has, the more he seems to sink. The more brandy she takes, the more she livens up. She’s found a magnifying glass on his desk and she’s fooling around with it. There is genuine laughter as they roll around on the floor, kissing one another. Nor does livening up stop with laughter and teasing; the more Johan sinks into his depressive state, the more vocal Marianne becomes. It’s not that Johan has become any less sarcastic or whiny, because that seems to be forever. It’s that Marianne has finally been given an opportunity, via Johan’s absence, to begin analyzing what went wrong with their seemingly perfect relationship. For the first time, she has been able to step back and survey the ground rather than being forced to rush onto the battlefield with no conception of where the enemy lies.

She tells Johan that she feels like she’s “breaking free” of him, which is true to some extent; she’s seeing other people, having sex without the guilt she talked about in the previous episode. She finally lets loose on Johan after he makes one of his typically snappy comments about her “post-mortems” of their marriage. She screams. “Why should you tell me how to think and feel!” she cries out after screeching and banging her hands on the table. In “The Vale of Tears,” her recollections are overwhelmingly of the stifling nature of her adolescence. Now it turns out that her adult life has been a mere continuation, but where before there was just her awkwardness and her mother to compete with, she has added in a husband, in-laws, and all of society to boot. Something has clicked or snapped or broken in Marianne. Perhaps it’s time, perhaps it’s the brandy, perhaps it’s seeing the finish line for her marriage right there and knowing she has to cross it. But whatever it is, she speaks with volume and frankness that has been utterly absent before now. She spoke beseechingly to Johan and he left her for Paula. She spoke quietly to Johan about the advances she’s made through therapy and memory and he fell asleep. Now she is speaking with force, standing up and pacing and throwing her hands forward in karate-like jabs. More than that, some of them seem to be hitting home. With profound insight, Marianne leans into Johan’s face as he picks up the pen to start signing the papers. You don’t actually want to get divorced, she says. Johan dissembles for a moment, but finally says what is probably the most shocking thing anyone says over all of Scenes from a Marriage: “I want to come home!”

Johan’s relationship with Paula has always been bad, even from the beginning, but he makes it sound like it’s hit a new low. He says something about feeling lonelier with her around than without, which is the same thing one of Marianne’s clients told her back in “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug.” He is tired of living this sparse life; as often as he downplays his possessions, Johan is no ascetic. He has always enjoyed eating a good dinner or sloshing down booze or reading his books and retiring to his bed or his summer home. But more than anything, he has a modicum of self-knowledge. “I’m scared and rootless,” he tells Marianne. There’s an understanding that he has badly mistimed his leap to “freedom.” For a couple of minutes, it is his absolute nadir. It seems as if nothing could be lower than this admission which does not even have the benefit of redemption behind it. There isn’t enough holiness in Johan or in what he’s done to turn this into some kind of confession. It is merely self-abnegation and just as badly timed as his affair with Paula; had he been able to do this years ago, there’s no telling what might have happened instead. The fact that he cannot even control this feeling for more than a moment or two before he begins to strike Marianne—a new low, and one he does not challenge in any later time—is a sign of his defeat. Marianne calls a cab. “I’m not letting you out,” he says. Not long afterwards, he begins to beat her with his fists, wrestling with her, using his greater heft to force her, presumably, back to the kind of seeming submissiveness that characterized their marriage. “I’m not letting you out” changes with stunning celerity to “I could kill you!” although on second thought, the two of them are not so different as they originally appeared to be. The episode does not use more than ninety seconds on this physical fight which feels like it lasts forever; he collapses on his little sofa, bent over, ashamed. Marianne is unbowed.

And then, they sign the papers. Johan first, then Marianne, standing over him.

Even after as much turmoil as Johan has led Marianne through, and even after he has blamed her for so much over the course of the past several years, “The Illiterates” stands out as an incredible proof of how difficult it is to turn talk into action. It has been a long time since the seeds of discontent were sown, and that discontent has grown like kudzu. Yet it takes an enormous act of physical catharsis matched with the powerful (and deserved) shame which goes along with it to finally get them to finalize the divorce. The things that the two of them say to each other over the course of this episode, the only one to unfold in real time, are blistering. This was never an idyllic pastoral romance—things have never been that good—but the mere fact that two people have enough bile to finally let loose is astounding. “The Illiterates” is full to the brim with hurt, and it is whip-smart about it. I don’t know if the episode is always powerful, nor are the words even well-said all the time. But “The Illiterates” is wise about the dam-busting in the final hours of a marriage, and that wisdom lingers long after seeing it play out.

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