‘Scenes From a Marriage,’ as seen from a marriage

Familiar terrain

sylvia nickerson for the boston Globe

The first time we saw it, my husband and I were terrified. We weren’t married yet. We hadn’t even met. It was the mid-1970s and we were teenagers, sitting alone — each of us loveless, dateless, awkward, intense — in dark movie theaters, he in New York, I somewhere in Connecticut, watching what seemed like a horror movie: Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” Despite its title, the movie seemed less about a marriage than about the institution of marriage. It was a harrowing vision of what our lives would be like once we met the person who would initially enchant but eventually bore and enrage and damn near destroy us. The best we could hope for, apparently, was to reach a battle-weary, older-but-wiser resting place, a tender embrace in a bloodstained room.

This time, my husband and I see “Scenes from a Marriage” together, over several nights, in the original six-hour version Bergman made for Swedish television. We sit in our living room and watch the couple played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as their marriage cracks and comes apart. At first, everything appears to be — well, not happy (this is Bergman, after all), but essentially stable: a tranquil surface veiling an unease and mutual disappointment which the characters are not fully aware of and yet accept. They are worldly, satisfied with their dissatisfaction. “Come on,” they seem to be saying, “we’re adults, what did we expect?”

But nobody is that worldly. The marriage blows up. He’s leaving. He has fallen in love with someone else. His confession is callous, relentless; he tells her, when she asks, what the other woman is like in bed. He tells her everything that has stifled him in the marriage — her need to plan and schedule, her attachment to convention. She hears all this in a daze, her eyes wide and stunned, obstinately innocent. My husband’s hand fumbles for mine in the darkness. We watch as, even amidst the revelation of betrayal, this couple’s domesticity keeps ticking along. He is leaving early the next morning with his mistress for Paris; his wife leans across him in bed to set the alarm.


At the end of each episode, my husband and I sit and talk. We speculate about the husband’s motives. Is he running away from his own sense of failure? Is it easier to blame his wife than to look at himself? We wonder how the wife will change once she realizes her husband is really gone. We make nervous jokes about how we wouldn’t want their marriage but we like their little green sofa.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Seeing “Scenes from a Marriage” now, from the perspective of a long marriage, my husband and I aren’t scared. We know our own terrain well enough to understand that it is our terrain; Bergman’s couple lives somewhere else. But we find the movie sad and disturbing and moving and yes, familiar. Not the betrayals or the savagery of the marriage, but the intimacy, the daily life at close quarters, the pajamas, the suit at the dry cleaners, the knowledge of each other’s small vanities and sore points.

When the breakup scene begins, Ullmann’s hair hangs in a long braid down her back; during that long violent night the braid comes undone. It happens again and again in subsequent episodes: she begins with her hair up, believing that finally — now that months have passed, or years — she is impervious to her husband. But each time they are together, despite all that has changed, they fall back into the deep grooves of the marriage; her hair falls down, her guard falls down, they can’t fool each other, least of all about their own equanimity.

My husband and I talk as we get ready for bed. The movie reminds us how much trust and vulnerability there is in a marriage, how much power married people put into each other’s hands — power that can be guarded carefully, or used to hurt each other. Is the movie about one particular marriage or about marriage — all marriages? It’s both. What makes art universal is that it is intensely, vividly specific. My husband and I check with each other about whether the cat is in, whether the dishwasher is on. He sets the alarm. I turn out the light.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’