Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage aired on British television in 1974, just after my own ridiculously premature marriage rather sensationally fell apart. Looking back, I’m at a loss to know what solace I drew from the domestic train wreck picked apart with such analytical severity in that angst-driven six-part series, unless it was my vicarious reliving of the ease with which a couple’s smug assumption of lifelong security can be shattered at a stroke and consigned to years of relationship hell. Though Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson played a lawyer and professor with two daughters — middle-aged people who had amassed so much more to lose than I had — Scenes From a Marriage seemed to define my disillusion and despair. At 26 years old, I thought my life was over.
I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the series again, mostly because I feared that, in the less apocalyptic light of my own middle age, Johan and Marianne (not to mention my younger self) would come to look like self-involved lightweights, the product of the uncompromising pessimism that Bergman made his life’s work, but that I’d come to regard as glib and partial. As most of us eventually learn, what we once believed to be the Great Tragedies that shaped us turn out to be mere bumps along a road that brings far worse — sick or dying parents, estranged children, the loss of old friends through time and distance, the body signaling its own decline — and far better, in the form of satisfying work and, if we’re lucky, love both romantic and domestic. Notwithstanding his warmly amused 1983 aberration, Fanny and Alexander, with its rollicking, flatulent extended clan bickering its way toward a fractious but exhilarating unity (what a relief!), Bergman seemed to have failed to grasp what Tolstoy always knew — that successful marriages and happy families exist as surely, if far less cinematically, as the unhappy disasters.
My mistake. Had Bergman mellowed with age, he’d have lost his greatest subject as an artist — himself: The impossible husband who married six times (the triumph of hope over experience?); the cranky hermit who, more than once, has given up on cinema and retired to splendid isolation on a remote island, only to pop up with another irascible testament to the failure of love. Saraband, a searing television-movie sequel to Scenes From a Marriage, in which Ullmann and Josephson reprise their roles, traffics in late-life regret (Marianne) and rage (Johan) with typical Bergmanesque bitter wit and brio. Single again and still a practicing lawyer at 63, Marianne breaks a 30-year silence to visit Johan, now a retired professor in his 70s living out what appears to be a serene idyll in a pretty cottage laden with pots of cheerful red geraniums. As Marianne pokes about the house and Johan’s life, the red darkens, and she finds herself trapped in a vipers’ nest far more malignant than anything she had experienced at the hands of Johan, who is now locked in mutual hatred with his ineffectual son, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), a musician whom he treats with open contempt.
Like Scenes From a Marriage, Saraband comes divided into relatively short takes that cut to the core of the virulent symbiosis between pairs: Johan and Henrik; Henrik and the troubled daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), he and Johan adore; Johan and Marianne, still sniping, he with calculated malice, she with the practiced passive aggression of a career victim, yet both with the underlying affection of old friends who can no longer really hurt one another. As always, Bergman’s implacable camera holds his characters in interrogative close-up. And as always, he can’t get enough of the female face: Karin’s lovely features ravaged by sorrow and anger at being entrapped; her dead mother, Anna, as beloved as Bergman’s own mother; and Ullmann, now ample and grandmotherly but still, with her startled blue eyes and soft, indeterminate features, a beauty. There are broad hints at incest, at relatives who don’t care enough and those who care too much, and sly lapses into sentimentality from which Bergman wickedly pulls out the rug. The movie’s title — a lovely word that describes a sexy dance for two — is either mordantly ironic or another instance of Bergman doffing his cap to the eros that courses through the most baleful of human relations. Johan is a monster, and Bergman undoes him as completely as he has all his alter egos, then treats him to a moment of rough mercy. In a penultimate scene, at once shocking, goofy and oddly convivial, Johan and Marianne lie together, naked and chaste, in a twin bed. Don’t get your hopes up for resolution. It’s not in the old man’s nature.
SARABAND | Written and directed by INGMAR BERGMAN | Produced by SVERIGES TELEVISION | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At the Nuart