By Sahizer Samuk
Despite its age, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is anything but dated; in fact it's a movie that proves, time and time again, its continued relevance to understanding the dynamics that shape family roles and gender stereotypes.
The movie opens with a scene in which a friendly-looking couple are being interviewed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxE1oA4scvc). The husband begins speaking first, saying that he is a great doctor and a creative and confident person. The woman cannot seem to find much to say, telling us only that she is his wife and the mother of his lovely children. She seems shy, lacking in confidence, and very much aware that the man at her side is the center of her life. The fact that they do love and respect each other is clearly and repeatedly articulated to the audience. It is also made clear that many of the couple’s acquaintances poison the family’s life with envious and jealous behaviors.
Husband and wife live in harmony, never once harming each other. Rather than being particularly nice to each other, however, they secure this peace by successfully acting out pre-established gender roles. Yet, as in a domino series where one stone falls and hits all the others in succession, the family collapses when the husband finds himself a slightly younger woman and decides to leave behind his beloved wife and children. At first, his wife is consumed by loneliness and feels abandoned, and in one scene we see her biting her finger so as not to scream out loud. She is forced to rediscover and re-create herself, rising from her own ashes to live her life without him.
When, after a few months, the man comes back home to pick his things, he realizes that he is still hungry for his wife’s love. Even though they are clearly still in love with each other, the director shows us that this vicious circle could last forever. The female protagonist is still constrained, indeed, by her role of woman, mother and wife, stemming from the demands and expectations of her whole family. Like a fish used to swimming in sea waters, she seems unable to define her own identity or to live outside of her familiar environment.
Yet, if being abandoned felt at first like a curse, it proves to in fact be a blessing when the woman starts facing her true self and begins to grow stronger. As Liv Ullmann notes, the wife walks out of the door and grows. And she transforms greatly.
When her husband comes to meet her again, she has found herself a boyfriend and explored the sexual desires she had repressed since her childhood. She tells him she has written a diary, giving voice to the dreams she had hidden and forgotten in her previous life. The way she had been socialized had prevented her from thinking of herself as a woman with her own talents. Her plans, desires, aims and hopes had been shaped according to other people’s needs. She had always found ways to be in line with the societal and cultural structures and forces that shaped her. Her new boyfriend, for example, accuses her of having used her body and sex as a form of control over her husband.
This is actually a common way in which women punish themselves, trying to forget how broken they are.
Because everyone becomes infantilized in response to trauma. This implies that the childhood and teenage years can mean repression for lots of women, as well as being forced to be amiable in society: smiling, happy, conforming, accepting, agreeing, not talking too much, escaping from men, suppressing what is forbidden…
The more blame is placed on the wife, the more she realizes that she has never truly been able to express herself. She finds a path to her inner self, writes her life in a poetic way. And she shines more and more both from inside and outside.
In the meantime, everything is turned upside down when the woman decides she wants a divorce. Even though her husband is the one to be blamed for the separation, he is unhappy with her initiative and turns very aggressive after her rejection. He hits her badly, after which they make love. She asks to be left alone for good and walks away.
Finally, the husband comes to accept his weaknesses and limits and his love for his ex-wife grows as time goes by. They realize they need each other, find one another in the dark, bandage each other’s scars, and seem willing to hold this physical and emotional connection forever. They get divorced. Both will have other loves, and discuss with one another everything they have learned. The relationship between them, once restrained by societal needs and moral obligations, is transformed now that the woman has been liberated from the roles that others had designed for her. This time, and for real, their union fills the void they had both longed for: to exist for the sake of love, reach a common understanding, respect each other without the boundaries that their families had defined for them - in short, without the gender roles men and women are socialized into. Yet this freedom only becomes possible after the woman has emancipated herself and the man has realized he has been taught to love selfishly, in between his other commitments, whilst women are by contrast taught to sacrifice everything for love’s sake.
This movie from 1970s still has a lot to teach us. Every time I watch it, I come up with a new interpretation of a little gesture or piece of dialogue that had previously escaped my attention. Yet it took me a while to really grasp the desperation and loneliness of the protagonist after her husband abandons her, and to realize that, in the director’s eyes, this process of destruction is necessary for her rebirth. Growing stronger, I learned, requires us to strip ourselves of the restrictive roles that are assigned to us - both as women, and as men.
Sahizer Samuk received her PhD from the Department of Institutions, Politics and Policies at IMT Institute for Advanced Studies. She wrote her thesis on Temporary Migration and Temporary Integration: Canada and the UK in a Comparative Perspective. Besides her academic career, she has written for a Turkish literature blog called http://begenmeyenokumasin.com. She has always been interested in authors such as Sevgi Soysal, Simone de Beauvoir and Nancy Fraser and feminist interpretations of novels and films.
(Photo and Video source, Scenes from a Marriage by Ingmar Bergman)