By Nicole Beth Wallenbrock
Watching Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973), Liv Ullman and Erlan Josephson reminded me of all the reasons why relationships are impossible and irresistible, of how love and hate wrap around each other so tightly in these most intimate of living situations and how in spite of the evil that this type of privacy far too often breeds, relationships will always carry a fatalistic charm. In the film, which was originally a television mini-series, we watch the dissolution of what initially appears to be happy marriage. Yet however pained the individuals appear when signing the divorce papers, the woman bleeding and bruised by blows, the man guilty and embarrassed of his behavior, the film concludes with the pair cheating on their new spouses only to be in each other’s arms once more.
In true auteur style, Ingmar Bergman is the name credited for these cinematic treasures, but it is just as much or more his cast that is responsible for this sort of awakening on the human condition. Liv Ullman is always alluring and natural, every minute seeming both the photogenic starlet, and the bearer of true emotions. (When I saw her speak at BAM during the run of A street car named Desire that she directed, she said that Scenes from a marriage was her finest acting achievement. I concur.) The transformations both characters undergo during the three hours, in which scarcely another actor appears, speak volumes on how marriages—and divorces, relationships and break-ups, alter our personalities. Or even how my relationship with Ingmar Bergman films has changed me!- After an intense 2 hours and 50 minutes inside this relationship, I had also grown more confident and independent with Marianne, less self-centered with Johann, and on the whole even more skeptical about the possibility of monogamous love.
In this frame of mind I went to Film Forum’s repertory showing of Antoine et Antoinette (Jacques Becker, 1947). Becker’s film has shades of neo-realism with a happy ending, capturing post-war Paris in an especially romantic fashion. The working class is idealized by an attractive young couple; the tall, muscular Antoine works in a book factory, and the slim, smiling Antoinette in a department store. Both are seemingly satisfied with their humble life together. Yet when Antoine discovers they have a winning lottery ticket, they make a list of purchases that will vastly improve their lifestyle. The rest of the film consists of the loss and eventual find of the ticket—and the couple’s hopes and anxiety during the search.
Unlike Scenes, Becker’s film does not attempt the profound exploration of a relationship’s intricacies—the marriage pictured is supportive, stable, and sensual. The actors shine in each other’s presence and their repartee is as sweet as it is witty. If as the end of the film suggests, Antoine has found the lotto ticket and the two will be rich soon, can we not imagine them in the future as a bourgeois middle-aged ex-couple-couple? Or is the class barrier to great to break? After all Bergman’s characters are from wealthy families—their education and sense of entitlement are elements of their bitterness, while Antoine and Antoinette represent the mythological simplicity of the working class. Regardless, history could never reconcile the couples; one represents a post-war view of marriage and the other is a 70s portrait of a crumbling institution.