A critic once commented on Francois Truffaut's French New Wave classic "Jules and Jim", a film portraying a bohemian threesome's tumultuous love affair, saying it proved only two people can comfortably fashion a loving marriage. It may surprise many readers to learn Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" argues in favor of reducing that number even further.
Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullman) have been married for ten years leading a superficially harmonious life. Two Daughters. Close Friends. Dinner plans every Sunday. Both sustain lucrative careers, well-ordered lives and abundant material comforts. However, this white-picket fantasy is soon filleted when Johan leaves Marianne for another woman. The film follows the couple throughout the ensuing decade as they cleave through their messy divorce.
Ultimately, Bergman is interested in human nature. People at their core have hundreds of thousands of years of brutal tribalism informing their behavior. Evolution has programmed humanity to think and act in terrible ways. But to ensure day-to-day encounters don't end in slaughter we assume characters, we construct identities, we manipulate and deceive every waking moment to preserve ourselves, and at even the gentlest breeze the flimsy curtain obfuscating our true intentions could flutter away. Every single one of us have dark, hidden capacities we don't wish to confront. Such is Bergman's position.
After their divorce both remarry only to discover the same travails surfacing in their new relationships. Throughout the film Marianne and Johan announce their frothing hatred for the other, make wanton love, pummel each other bloody and finally come to terms with the true problem with their marriage which is marriage itself.
They meet from time to time to consumate their love and reflect on their 20 years together. And, yes, for all of its figurative pestulence and plagues it is a love story. The film suggests everyone must retreat and indulge their personal devils in private, and at times emerge from solitude to enjoy a reprieve with another person. This reprieve is love. It is a self-interested type of love but to Bergman this is the sweetest taste we can hope for which is about as optimistic a vision of the human spirit as this Swedish auteur would ever admit.