Alas, the creative bankruptcy of contemporary American cinema has reached the small-screen as well. In the last couple of years we’ve seen old tv shows revived, Twin Peaks, The X-Files and MacGyver have all returned to varying results in vastly different formats to our small screens. The idiot box, which for many years has been one of the last beacons of well-written characters and dramas in culture with groundbreaking shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and True Detective is starting to take one too many tunes from the cinematic landscape which is built on pre-existing IP and familiar things. Another scary phenomenon which is getting traction is English-language remakes of foreign-language works. Granted this isn’t as common in television because frankly very few tv shows have translated internationally beyond English-language shows. But one exception to the rule, and henceforth a victim of this unfortunate remaking trend, is Ingmar Bergman’s classic and controversial television opus from 1973, Scenes from a Marriage.
It is not customary for me, or any of my colleagues on this site, to write about television. But since HBO decided to remake Scenes from a Marriage for American television, this time updated to modern day obviously, with Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in the two leads, I figured this would be a good time to take a look back at Bergman’s original work, which became an unexpected international sensation when released in 1973 and 1974. Although more people may be familiar with the edited down film version, running a total 169 minutes compared to the television series’ 280 minute running time, I will direct my attention to the series version.
Bergman initially wrote Scenes from a Marriage in the late 1960s, and per usual took inspiration from his own relationships and the relationships between his parents, something he would flesh out even further in Fanny and Alexander and particularly The Best Intentions, both given likewise theatrical and television releases. His wife at the time Ingrid suggested it might be too private and personal to hold any significant interest to anyone else beyond them, and Bergman agreed. Yet he carried on anyway, and upon completion of his latest success Cries and Whispers, he pitched his series to Swedish Television SVT and they greenlit six episodes. The whole series was shot in 42 days, roughly one week per episode, with only a third of the budget he had been afforded on Cries and Whispers. Despite this “downgrade” to a lesser medium (as television was looked upon at the time), Bergman was able to work with his regular crew, most importantly cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and two of his most frequently used actors, Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann. And despite the small screen, very private subject matter and as previously stated lack of respect given to television in the early 70s, Scenes from a Marriage became an international sensation.
To fit the medium of television, Bergman and Nykvist frame a majority of the series in the classic Bergman close-up. The close-up in Bergman’s world can be seen as a window into the soul of his characters, and since the medium of television in 1973 and for a long time could only be viewed on a small screen, these close-ups could suddenly appear massive. It also add to the tension and the drama the fact that much of the series is a two-hander between Erland Josephson’s Johan and Liv Ullmann’s Marianne, a married couple in upper-middle class Stockholm in the early 1970s who seem to be living the perfect marriage but underneath hide layers of lies and deceits from public scrutiny and indeed from each other.
And because of the smallness of the drama and story, Bergman is able to do some of his best character writing. The fourth and fifth episodes in particular are excellently written pieces of televised theatre, which was more or less Bergman’s intention. I can imagine this making for a terrific stage production and to play either Johan or Marianne would probably be any actors dream. Josephson in my opinion, gives possibly his greatest performance as the cynical yet torn Johan. I think probably the only rival to this would be his lead performance in The Sacrifice. Liv Ullmann, who frankly has never been an actress I’ve cared too much for if I’m being honest, also delivers a powerful performance as the confused yet liberated Marianne. There are times when her acting strikes me as dangerously similar to her performance in a later Bergman film, Autumn Sonata, which became a distraction for me, although it usually only lasted a few moments throughout the series.
And for the first time Bergman seems quite aware of how bougie his characters and dialogues often can be, as it’s stated quite early on in the interview. The characters admit to being upper-middle class and very bourgeois, which perhaps Bergman finally seemed to face and realize in the post-68 film world. The characters have a grand old house outside of Stockholm and a sommarstuga (summer vacation house) in the Stockholm archipelago (though shot on Fårö). I also think it’s clever of Bergman to start the series off with an interview. Because really, with an interview you present a version of yourself that you wish to be presentable. Both Johan and Marianne do this, but as the series goes on we will find that this bears little weight. They’re not people who know themselves, they’re emotionally illiterate as Bergman puts it. This is something I think is what Bergman truly got in most Swedes, how often we can be out of touch with our real emotions and our real selves. Perhaps that is why the show struck such a chord with the Swedish populace upon release.
With this column, and indeed this six-hour series, behind me I aim to catch the theatrical cut of this and also the new HBO version. I will most likely not be reviewing either of them, but I am curious to see how they compare. I’m particularly interested in the theatrical cut from 1974 of the original series, simply to see what was cut and what was left out. It feels like a monumental task to cut any of this down, especially since there are whole episodes that may be nothing but one long dialogue scene (looking at Episode Five here) and so much of it feels significant to the story or the characters, so it’ll be interesting to see how Bergman & Co. did it. I am also, cautiously, interested in this new American version. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of it is other than lack of original ideas or audience members desire to watch hot people experience relationship difficulties, but I’ll try to go in with an open mind and see if it can satisfy my cynical mindset. Not an easy challenge I assure you, but neither impossible.