Happy marriages rarely make for good cinema. The real drama comes when we see spouses tearing strips off one another, using their intimate knowledge of each others' lives for a blitzkrieg of taunting and humiliating insults about weight, personal hygiene and sexual inadequacy. As George and Martha in Mike Nichols's film of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966), Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor scrapped away like the film world's answer to two heavyweight boxers who both specialise in trading low blows. The reason they seemed so fresh and invigorating in their malice was that as the whole world knew the actors had a marriage (or marriages) almost as tempestuous as the one portrayed in Albee's play.
Grimmer but equally trenchant is the picture of married life given in Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage (1973). Strangely enough, the most vicious moments in the movie aren't those featuring the main protagonists Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson.) By far the most excruciating sequence in the movie comes early when Marianne and Johan's good friends Katarina (Bibi Andersson) and Peter (Jan Malmsjo) arrive for dinner. At this point, Marianne and Johan seem like the perfect bourgeois couple. Their home is beautifully furnished. The couple are proudly boasting about the flattering interview with them that has appeared in a big glossy magazine. The journalist has characterised them as "people who have never forgotten to give love pride of place." The mood at the dinner very rapidly sours when Peter reveals how "rotten" his relationship with Katarina has become. She calls him a spineless jellyfish. He complains about her cooking. That is just the prelude to a full-blown marital spat that ends with Peter quoting one of Bergman's favourite lines from Strindberg. "I wonder if there is anything more horrible than a man and wife who hate each other." The subsequent breakdown of Johan and Marianne's marriage shows just how perceptive Strindberg's remark remains.
Originally made as a TV series, Scenes From A Marriage turned into a full-blown phenomenon in Sweden. Bergman found himself cast in the unlikely role as a marriage guidance counsellor. Strangers would approach him for advice about their relationships. He was obliged to change his telephone number to escape entreaties from miserable husbands and wives. In the wake of the film, there were widespread debates about the institution of marriage. Commentators said how healthy it was for the nation that warring spouses were at last discussing their problems in the open. However, divorce rates went up rather than down. Meanwhile, Peter and Katarina the couple from the beginning of the movie were resurrected by Bergman (albeit played by different actors) in the even more vicious, German-made From The Life Of The Marionettes. (1980) By now, Peter had turned into a killer. We also saw Johan and Marianne again in Bergman's final movie, Saraband (2003). And, no, Bergman's view of marriage as a battleground didn't seem to have softened in the slightest in the intervening years.