Ingmar Bergman

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John Simon

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Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage is not the great film maker's best film, and may not even be the best film of the year. But it is almost certainly one of the most important films ever made, if by importance we understand the possibility of art's influencing people in a positive way—a slight, elusive possibility, perhaps even an impossible one. But one that we must believe in if we are not to give up on art or humanity, either of which strikes me as giving up on life….

Scenes from a Marriage is for our time what Everyman was for the Middle Ages. In its simple way, that medieval morality play embodied all the eschatological knowledge the average person needed to live and die by; in a quite similar, though less simple, way, Bergman's film sums up for us all there is to know about love, sex, marriage, divorce—the life of a man and woman together and apart. In that sense, it is perhaps closer in its capaciousness to the great medieval synthesizer, Thomas Aquinas, and can be viewed as a summa psychologica and summa erotica and, most of all, a summa matrimonii. Alongside the great literary tracts on love by writers like Stendhal, Kierkegaard, Ortega y Gasset, we must now place this cinematic treatise on married love—indeed, on basic man-woman relations—by the giant of Swedish and world film making. (p. 12)

Let me deal first with an objection to the film one hears occasionally: that it is too commonplace; that these people are so Everyman and Everywoman that they cease to be specific individuals; that the whole thing is too much of a faceless generalization. I disagree emphatically…. But do not let this serve as an excuse for skipping the released version. No, Johan and Marianne are not platitudes; they are encyclopedias….

The fact that we have all known Johans and Mariannes—the fact that we ourselves are, to a greater or lesser extent, Johan and Marianne—only increases their value for us. This would not be so if mere recognition were everything, but something significant has been added: Johan and Marianne are more vividly, juicily, exemplarily what we ourselves are. They represent our flaws and quirks, weaknesses and virtues, more brilliantly and perspicuously than we can….

What Bergman perceives devastatingly clearly is the continual jockeying for power in the most intimate of relationships. But he knows also how unconsciously it all happens, how unaware, these characters are of what they are doing. And so he makes them utter truths that are truer than they realize….

The marvelous thing about Scenes is that while showing only two characters in great detail, and a few others only peripherally, it manages to convey a whole bourgeois consumer society—its economics, politics, social structure, feeble idealisms and thriving insecurities—through casual remarks, offhand allusions, the feel of a room, the look of a piece of furniture. (p. 16)

John Simon, "Films: 'Scenes from a Marriage'" (reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.; copyright © 1975 John Simon), in Esquire, Vol. LXXX, No. 1, January, 1975, pp. 12, 16.

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