- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

Ingmar Bergman returned to film direction, in a manner of speaking, two years ago: His chamber drama for a quartet of actors, “Saraband,” which recently opened in Washington, was shot in a high-definition digital format for reasons of economy, but the filmmaker envisioned it as a modest theatrical attraction.

At 87, Mr. Bergman seems unlikely to come out of retirement with any frequency, so the problematic nature of “Saraband” itself may discourage a fresh appreciation of his prolific and distinctive cinematic career, which encompassed 40 fictional movies between “Crisis” in 1946 and “Fanny and Alexander” in 1983.

“Saraband” does recall the first Bergman venture in serial television, “Scenes From a Marriage,” which showcased Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a curiously estranged Swedish couple in 1973. Named Marianne and Johan, they get an unrewarding 30-years-after encore in “Saraband.”

The vintage travails of Johan and Marianne were said to have kept Sweden spellbound on six consecutive Wednesday nights. A three-hour feature condensation was released internationally in 1974.

A three-disc Criterion Collection edition makes it convenient to revisit “Scenes” as telecast or as trimmed for first-run movie theaters. The TV episodes, running about 50 minutes each, are imprinted on the first two discs, supplemented by interviews with the director and co-stars. The final disc contains the theatrical version, augmented by the commentary of Bergman biographer Peter Cowie.

The miniseries kept tabs on a neurotically vulnerable marital relationship over a decade. The chronicle begins in the 10th year of a union obviously contrived for an embittered fall. This foregone conclusion seems less precipitous if observed on the installment plan. The cuts made for the feature version are judicious, but the episodic approach helps conceal shortcomings in the extended plot.

Divorce proceedings hang fire for a few episodes. Once formally dissolved, the Johan-Marianne marriage is propped up in a screwball fashion during the final installment: The ex-mates take a final bow as clandestine lovers. Both have remarried (to characters who are never seen), but it tickles them to sneak off for a weekend tryst that coincides with what would have been their 20th wedding anniversary.

“Scenes” is formulated as a tear-jerker rather than a boudoir farce, but Mr. Bergman ends up endorsing amicable, two-faced divorce as a solution to marital strife.

The first scene finds Johan, a psychological researcher, and Marianne, a divorce lawyer, being interviewed by a magazine reporter preparing a superficial feature about a “perfect” professional couple. Two daughters, Eva and Karin, pose with their parents for a moment and then disappear for the rest of the series. Mr. Bergman can’t account for his cavalier approach to the children. We’re left with the oddity of purported parents whose parenthood is slackly illustrated.

Their professional credentials also are shortchanged: The second episode contains a scene with Johan on the job and another with Marianne on the job, but these glimpses lack follow-throughs. The popularity of the series hinged on Mr. Bergman’s orchestration of recurrent blowups and truces.

Initial hostilities are entrusted to another couple in the first episode — carriers of the estrangement infection, as it were. Johan and Marianne start mixing it up once he acts caddish and hateful in the second episode.

Mr. Bergman concluded that the key to the success of “Scenes From a Marriage” probably was the “emotional illiteracy” he attributed to Johan and Marianne. Their ways of concealing discontent or ignoring trouble were recognized by the public, which enjoyed seeing the weaknesses exposed. The oddest repercussion: Mr. Bergman notes that the divorce rate in Denmark spiked after the telecasts.

He regarded this as a good thing, circa 1986. However, he also left himself an escape hatch: the caveat that lifestyles were changing so quickly that the social fallout might look different years later. Good guess. Prone to triteness when fashionably new, Johan and Marianne have more authenticity 30 years later as a nutty variation on the cliche “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”

TITLE: “Scenes From a Marriage”

RATING: PG (Adult subject matter, with scenes of domestic conflict and occasional sexual candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography by Sven Nykvist. In Swedish with English subtitles. Originally telecast in 1973. Theatrical version released in 1974.

RUNNING TIME: About 300 minutes for complete TV version; about 170 minutes for theatrical version.

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection.

WEB SITE:www.criterionco.com

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