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Ingmar Bergmans forgotten masterpiece

From TV to theatre, by a famous film director – the story of Bergman’s hidden gem, Scenes from a Marriage.

Dominic Ellis

In 2018, both the Sydney Opera House and Scenes from a Marriage turn 45, and their respective Scandinavian creators turn 100.

We looked back at the iconic work, how it started on the small screen, evolved, reinvented itself, and became an essential influence across television, the stage and Hollywood.

Ingmar Bergman was one of the greatest artists of his era. He wrote or directed more than 60 films and television series as well as close to 200 plays, becoming the public face of ‘serious’ arthouse storytelling. Bergman’s most acclaimed works are respected for their ability to ask profound philosophical and spiritual questions through poignant imagery and formal experimentation — think the chilling personification of Death at the chessboard in The Seventh Seal (1957), or the intertwining faces in Persona (1966).

A hidden gem

Scenes from a Marriage has no such timeless reputation. While well regarded, it’s rarely romanticised alongside Persona or The Seventh Seal in the annals of film history. This is in part due its modest origins as a television series — which precluded it from Oscar recognition — and its thematic simplicity. Instead of focusing on religion, metaphysics or philosophy as in his earlier films, Scenes presents a complex portrait of a failing marriage over the course of 10 years. Originally a six part series released in Sweden in 1973, it was adapted a year later into a 169-minute feature for theatrical release in America.

A chess game with Death in Ingmar Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' (1957)

A master of dialogue

Scenes now stands as one of Bergman’s most affecting works, revealing that he was as much a master of dialogue and direction as he was staging and visuals. With Scenes, Bergman deliberately inverted the ‘show, don’t tell’ adage taught in English classes. What it lacks in singular iconic images, it more than makes up for in poignant dialogue, as we witness the disintegration of Johan and Marianne’s marriage represented through a decade of conversations.

“It took two and a half months to write these scenes. It took a whole life as an adult to experience them”, Bergman says of his script. There’s an authenticity to Scenes, as Bergman strips away all the vanities of film — secondary characters, complicated sets, fancy camerawork — instead focusing entirely on his protagonists, perched on couches or lying on beds, trying to understand each other or themselves.

Bergman has a unique way with words. His dialogue in the series, particularly Marianne’s, is poetic yet somehow also naturalistic and funny: “We had sex a few times, but it was no good…so we devote ourselves to my soul”, she says of her therapist. Johan, by comparison, is blunt and manipulative. While Roger Ebert once called Scenes “one of the truest, most luminous love stories ever made”, it feels today like more of a tragedy, or at least an indictment of the psychological entrapment of heterosexual marriage. Johan uses his words as weapons; he presumes to know his wife’s every thought, and dismisses emotion when he confesses his adultery: “Facts are facts, nothing can be done”.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater's 'Before Sunrise' (1995). Image: IMDb

The legacy

45 years since it first aired, the influence of Scenes is wide-reaching. Far from an international sensation upon release, the television show was infamous in Sweden where it debuted. According to folklore, divorce rates doubled after it aired, as couples were convinced to — like Marianne and Johan — air their grievances.

Scenes also had a lasting impact on Hollywood, inspiring a sub-genre of dialogue dramas that focus on self-aware couples trying to intellectualise their emotions. It’s hard to watch the films of Richard Linklater or Woody Allen without being reminded of Bergman’s quick wit. The razorsharp cynicism of Allen’s Husbands and Wives and his epoch-defining Annie Hall have semblances; the philosophizing of Jesse and Celine in Linklater’s Before trilogy comes even closer. These sort of ‘talky’ productions have the performers do much of the heavy lifting but, as with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, only really work when the performers have a palpable connection.

Stine Stengade and Morten Kirkskov in The Royal Danish Theater's 'Scenes From A Marriage'
Stine Stengade and Morten Kirkskov in The Royal Danish Theater's 'Scenes From A Marriage'

To the stage

Scenes was first adapted for the stage by Bergman in 1981. The circle was complete; Scenes had moved from television to cinema and finally, to the stage. It has since become a mainstay of European theatre, and yet still offers great opportunities for experimentation with various productions continually re-imagining the age-old story. Toneelgroep Amsterdam had different performers play the parts of Marianne and Johan over time, while the Royal Danish Theatre’s production, which reaches Australian shores in late October, has inverted the gender roles in their production, upending gender assumptions of responsibility and victimhood. This time it is Marianne who leaves her husband and two children in search of a more fulfilling life with her young lover.

Come celebrate our 45th anniversary with The Royal Danish Theatre’s modern re-imagining of Scenes from a Marriage, showing 17 – 21 October 2018 in the Playhouse.

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