The escape from irony. Scenes from a Marriage and Marriage Story.
Johan and Marianne are trapped by the ironies of their life together. Marianne is a divorce lawyer who cannot acknowledge she is unhappy in her marriage. She is frustrated by the conventional expectations of Sunday lunch with her parents but not by the conventions imposed on her by Johan. She thinks their friends who are divorcing have problems because they do not communicate, but she is unable to tell Johan or herself what she really wants or how she feels. She mistakes doing the washing up together for partnership.
Johan is not what he thinks he is. His description of himself as confident, talented etc in the opening scene gradually unravels over the next ten years. His is complacent to the point of being smug. We can see the distance between he and Marianne even though they and the interviewer cannot. He was supposed to be great, he is full of ambitious self belief, but there is nothing to distinguish him and he cannot let go of his self-image. The great irony is that he works in psychotechnology (using technology to understand the mind) but he is, in his own words, emotionally illiterate.
The realisation point for Marianne comes when she meets a client who has been in a loveless marriage for twenty years. 'I have an image of myself that does not correspond to reality', she tells Marianne. But Marianne does nothing. Eventually, Johan leaves her after an affair with a younger woman, the typical, mediocre response of a middle aged man who is not as accomplished as he believes he ought to be.
From there on, the ironies are unshackled. This means liberation for Marianne who discovers herself sexually and mentally and slow, undramatic decline for Johan, whose relationship dissolves. He does not get his big career move to America which would allow him to escape what he perceives to be the smallness of his life. Her triumph has to be his tragedy. In the end even his famous mild temper is lost and he beats Marianne. Like Greek tragedy, the story is about the opposing forces of nature and reason.
Life is never so simple, of course, and although Marianne has discovered common sense and gut feeling her new marriage is not utopian. It was a sexual relationship that lacked deeper feeling. Marianne and Johan have an affair and end up realising life is confusion, they are two people holding each other in a dark room at daw, but they are temporarily happy. (Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen's response to Scenes, makes similar conclusions but is much funnier. The Norah Ephron cameo is worth it alone.)
They have escaped from irony to poetry, and the realisation that romantic dreams and fulfilment cannot lead to the ideals of pure happiness, bliss or an untroubled life. It is too late for them to recreate their marriage now, however, the spell is broken. It's a reasonably happy ending.
What's striking, when you compare this to Marriage Story, is just how focussed on the individual lives, psychologies, and happiness of the two characters Scenes from a Marriage is. Marriage Story is as much about the system and the way the process of divorce creates a situation between people, rather than mitigating it, as it is about the emotions and needs of the characters. Scenes is about the dynamics between the two people, the way they are opposed and united; Marriage Story is about how the couple, although separate from each other, remain in some ways united against the system and the external forces of their separation.
Scenes presents more bluntly the internal forces of the separation, some of them legitimate, some of them selfish, many of them closely related to second wave feminism. The marriage in Marriage Story feels more saveable but also less adjusted to the sorrows of life. Marianne says she wants to see reality as it is, but eventually she realises that is a naive point of view and that life is less achievable, less accessible than that. Her messy compromise is the best and only option available to her. She goes with her gut. There is no single, true reality. Those insights are less clear in Marriage Story, to us and to the characters: amiable flexibility of the agreed custody rules seems like a weak response to the realisation that life has deeper questions than can be resolved through any single choice or ideology. In that sense, Scenes is a less political film, unexpectedly.
Both are excellent and should be watched close together. Marriage Story is more likely to make you cry, but Scenes from a Marriage probably has more to teach us about what marriage ought to be and how it can work best. It would be too easy, in either film, to take sides with one of the people in the marriage. In Scenes they come through what amounts to two individual and incompatible life crises and accommodate each other in divorce better than they did in marriage.
It would be wonderful to see a movie about a couple who accomplished that within their marriage, which happens all the time. In some senses, that is what Johan and Marianne did. Marriage Story does an excellent job of showing that traditional gender roles associated with parenting, house work and related topics are not as relevant to marital breakdown as we (used?) to think. The big game hunting here is all about the way two individuals navigate themselves through the world.
(Husbands and Wives does a great job of framing the break ups as the result of mid-life crises and persistent personality problems. For my money, Woody Allen is closer to the narrow truth about break ups, but not the broader truths of marriage and relationships the other two movies get right.)
Marriage Story is more of a five act tragedy structure, while Scenes feels like the structuring of a modern streaming drama (it was originally an six part mini-series). Both films have a long running metaphor about theatre. Story sees itself in relationship to great dramas, like Electra; Scenes puts itself in competition with Ibsen (and wins). At times, Scenes felt Shakespearean, with echoes of The Winter's Tale and As You Like It.
There is a discussion to be had about the portrayal of Marianne and Nicole as versions of Electra, with whom we have sympathy for taking just supposedly un-actions. Like Electra, although the debate is not about life and death, these films are long discussion about the competing obligations women have to their families and society versus themselves.
That is the modern version of the Electra story, which both movies smoothly refashion into a moderated version of the myth where the resolution is like saying, of course she's not Electra, she hasn't done anything horrific, but of course she is Electra because it wasn't an uncomplicated moral action.
The men end the movies different than they started out (perhaps diminished in Story but enlightened and more at peace in Scenes) rather than dead, which is the biggest change from Electra and the most profound thing either movies says in support of the female characters (both movies being highly sympathetic to the women, especially Scenes, and more ambivalent about the men). In Story there is physical harm and a literal fall for Charlie, but he does it to himself. All of this is why Nicole plays Electra as her last theatrical role in Story.
You can make similar comparisons between Scenes and A Dolls' House. Although Ibsen is the obvious loser of that contrast, apart from his insistence on realism, but Bergman wins there too, I think. Perhaps only because he is technically able to do so much in film to capture mood through perspectives and lighting.
Both movies are also a retelling of the basic marriage myth, Orpheus and Eurydice. Like Orpheus the husbands are preoccupied by their work and themselves. They are not poets, although Johan does write poems and Charlie is a director, but they share a sense of distraction from the world with Orpheus. After both men lose their wives and have to go to hell and back. And not just emotionally, there is a literal hell scape for them both on top of the distress of divorce. For Johan this is a mid-life crisis, for Charlie the horrors of LA.
Crucially, Eurydice dies, she is taken away, but in these films Nicole and Marianne act with more agency. Nicole leaves having had a taste of independence; Marianne decides not to come back. So although both husbands come back, wanting to take their wives away from LA or liberation, neither can. Orpheus lost Eurydice because he looked back; the two husbands in these films lose their wives because of their personalities and the justice system. They cannot follow the rules and succeed, like Orpheus.
What both couples realise is that the spell is broken. They can have some sort of ongoing relationship, but cannot retrieve what they had. This is realised with optimism in Scenes and with real sadness in Marriage Story. As a commentary on Orpheus, the films bring out the essential ambivalence, often overlooked, about why Orpheus looks back.
The five act tragedy structure of Story makes the ending more poignant because the characters have realised just too late that things might have been different. The compression of the story into a few months makes it more tragic and less philosophical than Scenes. Marianne spends years getting to the point of departure and it was deeply rooted to her childhood and personality. Nicole left but might have gone back. Events, LA, lawyers, her mother, Charlie, divorce law, and divorce culture, drove her further away. In that sense, Marriage Story is about not escaping from irony. It was always much less about them than they ever realised.
The ultimate lesson of both films is that you cannot ever be un-married. For better or worse, as they say. Or should that be for better and worse?