Scenes From Marriages, from Ingmar Bergman To Woody Allen

One thing I've come to realize is that grouping up films into these fuller, joint posts doesn't actually make writing them go any faster.  I still wind up devoting as much time writing about the films, because I don't want to give any of them short thrift, so it just makes it take longer between site updates.  So maybe I'll cut back on these sorts of posts in future, and tend more towards a basic one-post-per-film format.  But oh well, too late for today.  In an effort to plow further through Criterion's massive Ingmar Bergman's Cinema boxed set, I've rounded up all of the films in his influential Scenes From a Marriage trilogy, which many people don't even realize is a trilogy.  Bergman is, of course, one of the all-time great masters of cinema.  But even within his incredible oeuvre, this is some of his best work, so let's dive in!
So Scenes From a Marriage is actually a made-for-TV, six episode miniseries.  It was made when Bergman was seemingly well past his peak of cultural influence as a filmmaker.  But then this small screen endeavor became a phenomenon throughout Europe.  He'd made one or two works for television before, and several more theatrical films after, but he definitely made a noticeable career shift from the silver screen to television after this.  The intimacy of the subtler, in-home really suited Bergman's style anyway, with his penchant for quite close-ups and human drama over elaborate spectacle, but Scenes From a Marriage is quiet and intimate even compared to his previous work.

Update 8/13/19: Big Business was such an "oh, by the way" footnote to this post, that it didn't even occur to me that I had access to the 2002 DVD, too.  But I do, so I've gone ahead and added that disc to the comparisons below.
The title really tells you all you need to know: we're going to visit a married couple - Marianne and Johan, played by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, respectively - at various key points in their relationship, as they pull apart, draw together, argue and grow.  They have kids, but we just barely see them, because it's not about them.  In fact, we only see a handful of other characters, most of whom show up in a single episode and then are never seen again.  Marianne and Johan entertain a couple, Peter and Katarina - played by Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjö - who turn out to be on the brink of divorce in one episode.  In another, Marianne talks to her mother and learns her parents' marriage was frighteningly close to her own.  But for the most part, scene after scene just finds Liv and Erland alone together, in a small interior set, giving life to some of Bergman's most poignant dialogue with two of the best performances of their careers.
In America, Scenes arrived in a cut-down 3+ hour theatrical version.  The cuts were all made just for time, so it could play in movie theaters, and is otherwise a rather unwelcome abridgment.  Criterion has included both versions, the film and the full six episode series, in all of their releases to date.  But frankly, I can't imagine ever opting to watch the film version when the complete series is also available.  Sure, all the key story points are hit in both; but this is a film all about finding and focusing on the human moments, from the small intimacies to the bombastic conflicts, and watching a version shorn of many of those is like watching a horror movie with half of its coolest kill scenes removed.  I suppose it's a bit of a historical artifact, and I always prefer to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion; but I worry it leads to some viewers to just watching the shorter version just to appease their wandering attention spans.  As with Fanny and Alexander and The Best Intentions, you're really missing out if you're not watching the complete series.
Criterion first released Scenes From a Marriage as a nice, little special edition DVD, with both the theatrical cut and complete series, back in 2004.  In September of 2018. they upgraded both cuts to a nice 2-disc blu-ray release, but by then we all knew the Ingmar Bergman's Cinema box was coming, so I - and I imagine most of us - just waited the extra months for that.  It's the same 2 discs in both sets, apart from the new labels and menus.
1) 2004 US Criterion series DVD; 2) 2004 US Criterion theatrical DVD;
3) 2018 US Criterion series BD; 4) 2018 US Criterion theatrical BD.
The second set of screengrabs is different because the first shot I chose was only in the extended version.  For the most part, though, the transfers between the two cuts look reasonably identical, with one slight exception.  All four versions are standard fullscreen 1.33:1 except the 2004 DVD of the theatrical cut is actually 1.31:1 (cropping a tiny sliver along the sides).  Anyway, this film was shot in 16mm, so detail is quite light, while grain is a rather dominant feature, at least on the BD.  This might be an older HD master than most of Criterion's blus, because while the booklet points out that this was thankfully taken from the original 16mm negatives, it just says the scan is "HD" rather than 2 or 4k.  Plus, the colors, framing etc look just like the old DVD, which suggests it's the same master, just now getting the HD treatment.  Still, since it is all chunky 16mm grain rather than fine detail, I highly doubt there's more to pull out of the image anyway.  It's certainly sharper and more filmic than the DVD, and gets rid of the unfortunate interlacing the old release featured as well.

All the versions include a nice, clean presentation of the original Swedish mono with optional English subtitles, but the blu-rays of course upgrade it to lossless LPCM.
Criterion hasn't added to their extras since 2004, with exactly the same three features appearing in their latest boxed set.  We get a fifteen minute, vintage TV interview with Bergman on the series.  At 15 minutes, it's not terribly in-depth like some of the great behind-the-scenes looks a few of his other films have received, but it covers the basics nicely from his perspective.  Then there's an excellent interview featurette with Liv and Erland, and finally a brief but helpful piece by Criterion's resident Bergman scholar, Peter Cowie, which basically just explains the differences between the two cuts of the film/ series.  All versions also include an essay by Phillip Lopate in the booklet.  So not exactly a packed special edition, but provides enough to give you a well-rounded picture.
Now, From the Life of the Marionettes is a strange one.  It's one of two films Bergman made while estranged from his homeland of Sweden and living in Germany, so it has none of its usual actors. Never the less, though two characters from Scenes From a Marriage recur in this film, though not the two you might think.  It's Katarina and Peter, the squabbling couple played originally by Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjö.  Here they're placed in a strange, existential crime film.  The film opens in color, with Peter murdering a prostitute, but then switches to black and white as the film goes back in time to explore events that lead up to this shocking crime.  A few details are switched around - in Scenes, one of Katarina and Peter's problems is that they wanted to split but owned and operated the same business together, while here they work in complete separate fields.  And of course they now speak German and live in Munich.  But essentially they're the same people struggling with the same issues, just transported in scenario... and to some degree genre.
We do get another study of a marriage in turmoil, and obviously there's a direct connection to Scenes with the characters returning, but this is a very different film.  Different from Scenes and different from anything Bergman had ever filmed in his career.  It's closest, I suppose, to a sort of mash-up between 1969's The Rite and 1977's The Serpent and the Egg, Bergman's other German film.  And there's some Persona in this film's use of dreams and abstracted imagery.  It's rewarding to see Bergman still trying new things this late in his career, and exciting in how successful he turns out to be.  The touching relatability is somewhat sacrificed to more of the armchair psychological study you expect in classic crime flicks.  In fact, there's an actual psychologist in the story, who our leads visit.  But really, this feels like a much more individualistic, interior descent into nihilism: more Taxi Driver than Thirtysomething.  It's certainly a refreshingly unexpected take.
From the Life was never released on DVD here in the US, but thankfully Tartan issued it among their wonderful Ingmar Bergman Collection over in the UK, which included many Bergman flicks that we weren't getting Stateside.  They were all barebones, but at least it gave us respectable presentations of the movies we were sorely lacking here.  But then, of course, we finally did get it, for the very first time, in Criterion's big 2018 box, with a seriously upgraded HD transfer.
1) 2002 UK Tartan DVD; 2) 2018 US Criterion BD.
The difference between the DVD and BD is much starker in Marionettes' case.  First of all, we're now shifting from n open matte 1.33:1 to a pillarboxed but still much tighter framed widescreen 1.66:1.  But even more drastically is how soft the DVD looks, like it's taken from a videotape master, and possibly edge enhanced after that.  Meanwhile, Criterion's blu is a crisp 2k scan of the original 35mm camera negative.  Grain is perfectly rendered, detail is surprisingly clean.  It's a revelation compared to what we had before it.  The DVD also has a bizarre pale strip running down the left-hand side, which Criterion is happily free of.  Both discs present the original Swedish, sorry German, mono with optional English subtitles, but Criterion offers a crisper and off course lossless LPCM.  Both are also disappointingly barebones, with the Tartan DVD just including one or two generic Bergman trailers.  It at least includes an insert with notes by Philip Strick, while Criterion's box of course has its massive 248 page book.
2003's Saraband is Ingmar Bergman's final film as a director (as a writer, well, films are still being made of his scripts to this day).  And it's a much more direct sequel to Scenes than Marionettes was.  We're back to Johan and Marianne, played again by Erland and Liv, now in their twilight years.  Quite a bit has happened since Scenes, and the characters are now thoroughly divorced and living separate lives.  But Marianne feels compelled to go see Erland one last time.  What might have been a simple, romantic and nostalgic visit turns into a heated drama pretty quick, however, when some new characters enter the picture.  Johan not only has a son, Henrik, but a granddaughter, and all of the issues he had with Marianne in Scenes seems to have been passed down in spades to his offspring.  Ever since Henrik's wife died, if not before, he's crossed boundary after boundary with his daughter, until she runs to Johan - and inadvertently Marianne - in a panic.  But Johan and Marianne may be too caught up in their own recurring troubles to be of much help.
Saraband was released on DVD by Sony in 2006.  It was a pretty nice little release: widescreen with a nice making of doc on it.  But it never saw an HD release, here or anywhere else in the world (there was a Swedish BD release of Scenes From a Marriage which included Saraband, but it was just presented as a standard def extra) until Criterion's epic Bergman box at the end of 2018.
1) 2006 US Sony DVD; 2) 2018 US Criterion BD.
My understanding is that this film was printed onto 35mm prints to play theatrically, but it was shot digitally, and that DCP - pre-35 printing - is what's been released on disc.  The book just refers to this as HD taken from a "digital master," so we're not talking about any kind of new restoration from film elements like we are with every other disc in Criterion's set.  It certainly looks it; there's definitely a more modern video-y feel to this film than any of the others.  And so essentially we're looking at the same master on both discs, but there's still a distinct uptick in sharpness on the BD.  Also, since these ought to be identical apart from the SD to HD step up, I was surprised to note a slight shift in the framing.  The blu is slightly wider, taking the film from 1.76:1 to 1.78:1.  The DVD is ever so slightly pillar boxed, which the blu removes to unveil slightly more picture... I assume Sony just figured the edges didn't matter since would all be overscan anyway, so it's a nice little fox here.

Both discs feature the original Swedish stereo mix with optional English subtitles.  Sony also included French and Portuguese subs on their DVD, while Criterion bumped the audio up to LPCM.
Here's a rare point where Criterion's set disappoints.  Their disc of Saraband is completely barebones.  But Sony's DVD had an excellent 45-minute 'making of' documentary, shot during the filming of the movie.  We get some direct to camera interviews, but the bulk of the experience is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at the filming of nearly every scene, and covering nearly every element of production, from the costumes to the sets and stunts (such as they are).  To be fair, we do get some brief moments from the making of Saraband edited into one of the documentaries included on Criterion's bonus disc, as part of a general overview on Bergman's work.  But this is definitely not a comparable experience; and I was very surprised - not to mention disappointed - when I saw that the 2006 documentary did not make its way into Criterion's set.
So that's it for the official canon films in the Scenes From a Marriage franchise, but in 1991, we also got Scenes From a MallPaul Mazursky's spin on Bergman's classic.  As you might imagine, this is definitely more of a light comedy than the Swedish originals.  But it's more than a parody, with Mazursky sincerely endeavoring to mine much of the same genuine issues between married couples that the original Scenes did, albeit with a lot more sugar to help the medicine go down for American audiences.
The film starts off feeling very different with Woody Allen and Bette Midler starring as the ultimate LA power couple.  Wait'll you see Allen in his mini ponytail and track suit.  Their children go off on a trip, and they're left to shop for the holidays on their own in the massive Beverly Center mall.  The location seems almost as important as the lead characters as the camera continually pans away to track background characters and events, including a mime who always seems to eavesdropping over Allen's shoulder and a trio of young rappers who seem to wander aimlessly around the mall carrying a boombox performing a Christmas rap to themselves.  But as the characters reveal themselves, we discover that they're going through their very own Scenes From a Marriage, and a similar infidelity is quickly unveiled.
Those who found Liv Ullman's all too human and relatable reaction to Johan's affair, where she submissively accepts and attempts to understand her husband's cheating and still keep the marriage together, will delight in Midler's unforgiving rebuke and strong dressing down of her husband.  The added modern sensibilities are very welcome to the mix, and as more layers are peeled back, we learn Midler hasn't been so faithful herself, and there are more thoughtful subtleties and affections to be explored between them.  So okay, clearly Mall doesn't dig as deep as Marriage, but I think it gets closer than it's been given credit for.  Plus, Midler and Allen's characters are great alternatives to the European originals, there's plenty of genuinely witty banter (I wouldn't be surprised if Allen threw in a few lines for himself to say), and the vibrant mall is an entertaining, if ultimately distracting, backdrop.
Scenes From a Mall was released by Touchstone/ Buena Vista as a barebones, but at least anamorphic widescreen DVD in 2003.  In 2011, Mill Creek actually released it on blu-ray, but it had lossy audio.  So thankfully Kino came along in 2017 to reissue it on blu, this time with proper lossless audio... and as a double-bill with another Bette Midler 80s comedy, Big Business.
1) 2003 US Buena Vista DVD; 2) 2017 US Kino BD.
Kino's blu-ray isn't too showy, but a solid upgrade over the old DVD.  It corrects the aspect ratio to 1.85:1 from a slightly squeezed, and consequently window-boxed 1.81:1.  Grain is light but everything seems fairly well preserved and untinkered with.  It feels like an older master, but a fine one.  And compared to the smeary, compressed DVD, it's an even bigger step forward.  Both films just have a remixed 5.1 track, which as I said is lossless on the blu.  The DVD included a French dub, while the BD gives us the preferable option of English subtitles.  The DVD's only extra is an insert with chapter stops, while the BD at least includes the trailer.
And I guess now, being properly conscientious, I've gotta cover Big Business, too.  It's a late 80's Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin comedy directed by Jim Abrahams as he started to step away from his classic Airplane-style parodies to more a conventional style.  It's... okay.  It definitely feels like everybody's taking this one as an easy job.  It's a predictable but not unappealing premise about two sets of twins, mixed up at birth, one from a rich big city family, and one from a down-south farming community.  So you've got a hill billy type in charge of a major corporation, and an uptight socialite stuck in the sticks, until an arbitrary set of circumstances finally has them cross paths as adults.  Midler and Tomlin play two twins each, and it feels like this film was mostly created just to show off the freshly achieved technology to have two of the same actor appear on-screen at once.  The humor's mostly pretty lame and obvious, but it sets itself up for some classic slamming door farce (one twin leaves the room and the other enters while nobody's looking, and another a wacky mix-up ensures), Tomlin and Midler are charming even when they're aiming low, and there's a some fun supporting players including Fred Ward, Michael Gross and Seth Green.  If you come in with relaxed standards, it's an amusing enough watch, but I'd say imagine only dedicated Midler completists would feel the need to add this to their collections if it wasn't the second half of a double feature.
1) 2002 Touchstone/ Buena Vista DVD; 2) 2017 US Kino BD.
Big Business had also previously been released on blu by Mill Creek, apparently with the same transfer, but this one's always had lossless audio.  Subtitles would've been nice.  Anyway, it may be a bit soft, but it's a generally attractive, filmic 1.85:1 presentation with natural grain and no sign of unwanted tinkering.  It's certainly a clearer, crisper image than the DVD, which is a bit of a lumpy mess, and similarly windowboxed as the Scenes From a Mall DVD.  That leaves the DVD framed slightly off to 1.82:1, losing a info not only along the sides like you'd expect, but the bottom, too.  So again, not an impressive cutting edge transfer like you'd get from a fresh 4k scan, but it's still a solid B+ HD presentation that's more than satisfying for such a nicely priced disc of a fairly low-profile catalog title.  They've also cleaned up a little dirt and debris that was left on the older DVD master.

The only extra, besides Scenes From a Mall of course, is the theatrical trailer.  The DVD doesn't even have that (though it has bonus trailers on auto-play).  Interestingly, Kino re-released Big Business as a solo disc, which is apparently pretty much the same except for a new 5.1 remix (in addition to, not instead of, the original stereo track), English subtitles and an audio commentary by Abrahams.  It seems like small reason to reissue another edition over; but on the other hand, I'd be happy to double-dip if Kino would do the same for Mall.
So yeah, these films make a wonderful quadruple bill (I'm leaving out Big Business, of course). Of course, you wouldn't want to try and squeeze it all into a single evening, but over the course of a week or so, the sequels and strange variations all keep snowballing into a fuller, more powerful experience.  And the Criterion box and Kino double-feature are undoubtedly the way to go, although you'll still want to hang onto your old Saraband DVDs.  Or, if you don't still have it, I think it's worth the super cheap price it costs to order a copy used online, because that doc is really good, and Criterion leaves it hanging without any features.  But this isn't the only time they've done that in this set, as we'll soon see...

No comments:

Post a Comment