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The Past Recalled: An ex-wife (Liv Ullmann) visits her bitter husband (Erland Josephson) after 30 years—must be a Bergman movie.

Marital Misgivings

Ingmar Bergman revisits the crime-scene marriage of Johan and Marianne in 'Saraband'

By Richard von Busack

AFTER ALL the many reunions of estranged fathers and yearning sons the movies have been selling us lately, the honest mutual contempt between generations in Ingmar Bergman's newest, Saraband, acts like air conditioning on a sticky day.

Erland Josephson plays Johan, a psychologist retired to his country home. The view from the old man's window takes in the summer cottage where his son, Henrik, lives. Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) has the face and mannerisms of a weakling. A semiemployed professor of classical music and a recent widower, he lives in troubled solitude with his daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius).

This standoff between father, son and daughter/granddaughter is ended by an unexpected visit from Henrik's long out-of-the-picture former spouse, Marianne (Liv Ullmann), who acts as a surrogate mother, bringing some slight clarity to Johan and his line.

Saraband is a continuation of Bergman's 1974 Scenes From a Marriage, a six-episode TV series that follows the marriage of Josephson's Johan, then 42, an associate professor of psychology, and Ullmann's Marianne, then 35, a divorce lawyer. (Johan and Marianne = John and Mary: it's meant to be that corny, even in Swedish.)

Criterion's DVD of Scenes From a Marriage includes both the original TV show and the edited-down version released theatrically in the United States. I feel rooked. This is what they were getting overseas. Meanwhile, everyone here was holding forth about the profundity of Norman Lear's sitcoms.

The TV show's title doesn't just mean "incidents from a marriage." It implies marriage as a staged show. At the beginning of Scenes From a Marriage, Johan and Marianne are being interviewed for a newspaper lifestyle piece about what a success their marriage has been. "Look as if you're fond of one another," says the reporter as she sets them up for a photograph.

Seeing Johan and Marianne when they were young prepares us for the bitterness in Saraband. When the aged Marianne tells Karin that there is no possibility that a woman of today could be as trusting as she was when she was a young wife, we know that she is telling the truth.

The 1974 Johan and Marianne reveal only slight flashes of discontent. When the split between them comes, it is abrupt. At their summer cottage, Johan announces he is in love with a younger woman. "I've wanted to be rid of you for four years," he tells Marianne; then he drops a Strindberg quote: "Could there be anything worse than a husband and wife who hate each other?"

Bergman's TV series exemplifies what Ambrose Bierce said of marriage. Rather than making two people one, it makes two people four: two masters and two slaves.

In Scenes From a Marriage, Ullmann plays Marianne as plain: pie-faced, with swept-back, split-ends-ridden hair, gowned in the earth-toned kaftans popular in the day. She is faintly bovine, but Johan's emotional savagery unleashes something strong in her. Before the marital struggle in Scenes From a Marriage, she could be motherly or childish, as acquiescent as a pudding. In later episodes, she is almost a Valkyrie.

The older Marianne of Saraband is wiser, but she is also fragile. Everyone in her life has drifted away. And in the echoing silence of her old age, she imagines that she has heard a psychic call from her former mate. You can defend the younger Johan's cruelty and suggest that his ruthless honesty burst the hermetically sealed bubble that trap husband and wife. The TV series even ends in something of an upbeat way: no longer needing or hating one another, Johan and Marianne become sleepover friends.

The 1974 edition of Johan is a little comic, with his thick glasses and a pipe—in his era, academics brandished pipes like kings brandished scepters. In Saraband, despite the tremor in his right hand and his ruined nude body, Johan is not quaint anymore.

Released from his sex drive and the needs of his children, he is free to desiccate himself in his music and his Kierkegaard. Marianne, stung by Johan's verbal cruelty, calls him "a forgotten character from a stupid old film." (I don't know which one she means; it probably stars Lionel Barrymore.)

But in Saraband, the poison isn't between husband and wife; it's intergenerational. Henrik twinkles as he describes how he'd love to see his father die slowly. Johan is open about how his son has disgusted him from the beginning. Marianne can only try to draw them back from their wounding folly. And she tries to help Karin, contended for between the unnatural father and his warped son.

Rarely can a director pick up a thread from 30 years ago and connect it to something living today. Fortunately, Bergman has made progress—in the richness of visual imagery, in dramatic emphasis and in amendment of his old ideas.

Saraband isn't a sad throwback to past greatness. Instead it's a serene, fresh work, assured and open-minded. Bergman must be the exact opposite of Johan. He assures us that female strength will always overcome the male urge to possess and control.

Saraband (R; 120 min.), directed and written by Ingmar Bergman and starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson opens Friday.

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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