Scenes from a Marriage, S1E6, “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”

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

(My thoughts on the previous episode are here.)

It’s not surprising that in this final episode, more like an epilogue than an actual continuation of the plot, Johan and Marianne seem to be back together. They are no longer married. He’s married to an Anna, and she to a Henrik. (“Let all the birds nest in my hair!“) They seem to have forgotten very little about each other, but in conversation and talk with one another they seem like people who have misplaced an item—a pen, a glass—but are in no hurry to find it. Their memories are strong, but the servitude of their memories which they used to be bound to has been eradicated.

The chains fall off in the first few scenes of the episode, which take up nearly half of its running time. Marianne goes to see her mother (Wenche Foss), who has recently been widowed. Johan sees Eva again, the only supporting character who appears more than once, as well as a colleague. How strange it is to see people once more who are neither Johan nor Marianne! The miniseries gains immeasurable power from its viselike grasp on its leads, supported by the fact that about two-thirds of it doesn’t recognize that anybody else exists. But in this final episode, it uses other people to tie up the loose ends that Johan and Marianne have in their lives. Marianne, who long ago traced the genesis of her self-denigration to the way she was brought up, talks to her mother for a short time. It’s not a fruitful talk. Her mother plans to inter her late husband’s ashes on a day when Marianne has to be in court. Neither one of them accommodates the other, and more than that neither one of them seems terribly interested in doing so. The tyranny that Marianne remembers from her childhood has been significantly weakened, but Bergman lets us use our imaginations here. It’s not so strange to think that once upon a time, thirty-five years ago, maybe, we could have walked in on the mother browbeating the daughter, undercutting her at a stage of life where Marianne was most vulnerable. In truth, the character who bears the most resemblance to Marianne’s mother is the client she saw back in episode 2, Mrs. Jacobi, who desperately wanted a divorce from a husband she felt no connection to. Marianne’s mother admits that she and her husband never “touched” in any kind of metaphysical sense. (The most memorable description she has of her marriage is, “The hostility would fade and we’d forget our differences.”) They lived near one another and basically led separate lives; interring his ashes will be as much a duty as the marriage itself, and no doubt she will be left alone to consider the continuing relevance of her marital motto: “Cope with your own problems.”

Around the same time, Johan is in his office. There’s a lot of talk rushing around him about Lena, a beautiful young woman who seems to have made a distinct impression on everyone in this little circle. Johan’s colleague would love to get her into bed; Eva accuses Johan of sleeping with her, a charge which he denies (and has denied before). If Marianne’s problems stem from her childhood, then Johan’s come from the way that he treats sex like a buffet when, socially, he is supposed to eat a single plate at dinner. His eyes have always wandered, and he has always felt hemmed in by the fact that he’s supposed to limit his number of sexual partners to that woman he married (or the woman he left his wife for, etc.). The conversation he has with Eva is not unlike some of the conversations he’s had with Marianne, for at this time he and Eva have some sexual history that they didn’t have in “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug.” There’s just not enough there to blow the top off of anything. He and Eva are like a bottle of soda that has been shaken once; the mess between him and Marianne is like a bottle of soda that has been shaken up and thrown against a brick wall. Eva tries to get a reaction out of him; Johan simply refuses to bite, barely even looks at her in any sort of meaningful way.

Johan and Marianne meet in a car, laugh, and drive off. It’s surprising in the sense that it’s hard to imagine the two of them speaking to each other again after the events of “The Illiterates,” but the miniseries doesn’t aim to surprise you. They had already been trending in this direction; Marianne wore her hair casually around her mother and Johan is back on pipes after his brief experimentation with cigarettes. The more Johan denied having a date with Lena, the more we believed him, and the more it became clear that he was going to see Marianne once more. Marianne has learned to manage how much weight her past places on her shoulders; Johan has learned to manage his temptations. The chalkboard is still messy with chalk dust, but it is now clean enough to write on again. We find out that it’s been two years since the divorce, seven years since Paula entered the picture, twenty years since they were first married. Physical distance and emotional distance has mellowed them out with one another. She is affectionate and kissy. He whistles while he makes a fire in a cottage not unlike the one that they used to have together. They are lit by a lamp in the shape of the sun, a goofy little object that is nonetheless much warmer than the fluorescent lights which chemically bathed them in “The Illiterates.” It’s possible to imagine a sweetness in the two of them that has been basically unimaginable since the first episode of the series.

The longer they talk to one another, the more clear it is that people in this world cannot really change themselves. Henrik likes sex and cheats on Marianne. Anna seems just as intoxicated by Johan as any of the other women he’s ever seduced, but he is dissatisfied. Over dinner the two of them talk about how things might have been different if they, in their early married years, had set aside their prestigious careers and opened up a little shop. Marianne seems to think it would have worked; Johan, a little more insightfully, notes that Marianne’s ambition would have made both of them miserable. (He does not mention his own.) Back in that intimate zone which the two of them have recreated for themselves—the mirror of what should have been years ago when he came to the cottage early to tell Marianne that he was leaving her—they say almost frankly what their worldviews are. Johan sees his life as a long, deadening exercise in futility. Marianne sees her life as a long, wearying exercise in perseverance. They have sex. As always, it’s Johan’s idea, but he asks nicely for the first time in goodness knows how long, without sarcasm or irony to protect himself.

“In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World” is an anticlimactic finish to a miniseries which, at its best, goes full Ludovico technique on the viewer, and its final scene is in its own way an anticlimactic finish to the episode. Marianne has a nightmare and cuddles up with Johan, who holds her while they talk. The power of the scene is in the dialogue, which is somehow abstract and direct within moments of each other, crossing pronouncements about the sliding confusion of humanity with requests to sit wrapped around one another all night. It is as warm, in other words, as that silly lamp with the red nose which replaced the candlelight for their dinner earlier that evening. The love we share, Johan says, is “earthy and imperfect,” even if Marianne in this moment seems not to believe that she has ever been loved. He cannot describe it, and he cannot say for certain whether their love is mutual. But he believes that he loves her, and he believes that she loves him too. All he knows is that they are lying in bed together, arms around one another, in this house in the night-time somewhere in the world. The two of them have spent years making bold statements at each other; as they return to something like peacefulness in these final moments of the miniseries, how right it is that a dose of simplicity can at least alleviate the loneliness.

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