Before there was Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, Allen’s Husbands and Wives, or even Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, there were two films which attempted to expose the reality behind so-called “perfect” marriages: John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973).While Bergman’s film is engagingly complex in its analysis of a marital breakdown, Cassavetes’ film is brilliant in its use of camerawork to isolate various “faces” of dissatisfied men and women. In both movies, there is a lingering dissatisfaction between the main couples that causes them to each seek love elsewhere. Throughout this search for a renewal of both happiness and excitement in one’s life, the couples succeed in doing two things: perfecting their façades and simultaneously evading any heightened level of self-discovery.

As someone who has been married for almost three years (and who has been in the same relationship for over seven), I know how difficult marriage can be and I can easily see how one’s sense of individuality can become blurred with that of one’s spouse. You come to depend on the other person in ways you never imagined you could and throughout various transformations, you begin to wonder if these changes necessarily signal growth, or simply stagnation. In both Faces and Scenes from a Marriage, couples Richard and Maria Forst, as well as Johan and Marianne, respectively, “put on shows” both inside and outside of their marriages (e.g., when Richard and Freddie literally re-enact a show from their college days for Jeannie). It soon becomes obvious that Richard and Maria’s subsequent lovers “act” as well. Nobody, then, seems to operate naturally, in other words, without “acting.” And while Scenes opens with an interview chronicling Johan and Marianne’s long and successful marriage, Faces opens almost immediately with husband Richard, and his friend, Freddie, having a party at the home of a prostitute, Jeannie. Despite this difference, as both films progress, we see the same underlying problems in each marriage – boredom, dissatisfaction, and restlessness with the apparent “routine” that each marriage has inevitably become. Each couple has been “acting” as if they were happy in their relationships for a long time and, as audience members, we enter the scenes precisely at the moment when this façade begins to unravel.

It is the constant exposure to the familiar that seems to aggravate both Richard Forst of Faces and Johan of Scenes. Upon coming home to his wife after a night of drinking and partying, Richard comments that “There’s no place like home.” When his wife admits that she couldn’t hear him, he then asks, “Have you ever been to Rome?” thus contrasting the exotic and unfamiliar with that of the everyday. Both Johan and Richard have grown tired of their lives and wish to be awakened. Much like the character of Florence in Faces, they are waiting for something to come alive inside of them. After dancing and kissing playboy, Chet, the aging and married Florence remarks: “You know, these dances, these wild crazy dances–I think they’ve succeeded where science failed. ‘Cause you know, I can go to a beauty parlor and sit there for hours having my hair done and my nails polished, but I don’t feel any younger. I might look it. These dances, these wild crazy dances–they do something to me inside.” It is the excitement of being in the arms of another lover that stimulates each spouse’s interest. In Scenes from a Marriage, Marianne candidly admits to her husband that sometimes she wonders what it would be like to be with another lover. This type of honesty is rare in Bergman’s film as the second portion of his miniseries is entitled simply, “The Art of Covering Up.”

Although we don’t see the lovers of Johan and Marianne in Scenes, we see that the lovers in Faces also seem to operate “mechanically,” as their selfhood seems to shift from scene to scene based on what their lovers want or require. In Faces Richard asks Jeannie to just “be [her]self,” to which she responds coyly, “But I am myself. Who else would I be?” The answer is, obviously, whoever he requires her to be at any moment. Her occupation is primarily in satisfying men and fulfilling any fantasy they may have. Her selfhood is thus dependent on what each man wants from her. The same theme seems to be present in Johan and Marianne’s marriage in Scenes. As Marianne reads to Johan from her diary she states that she doesn’t have “the vaguest idea” who she is. As a young woman, she expressed interest in professional acting, and throughout her life she has continued to show that she is perfectly capable of doing just that. She claims, “I go on pretending. Faking my relationships with others, with men. Always putting on an act in a desperate attempt to please.” Marianne feels that this show amounts to nothing less than “cowardice” and “ignorance” of one’s self. She knows what she is lacking in her life, but seems unable to get it. Meanwhile, as she is pouring out her soul to Johan, he has fallen asleep, uninterested in the details of his former spouse’s concerns.

The pattern that appears in both films is as follows: a long union (which seems to largely be a façade), disrupted by boredom and confusion, followed then by an exciting extramarital relationship, followed, yet again, by boredom and dissatisfaction within this outside relationship. Thus, partnerships are presented as endless circles of confusion and, ultimately, routines which we cannot avoid. In Scenes, Johan claims that he doesn’t “know what [his] love looks like, and [he] can’t describe it. Most of the time [he] can’t feel it.” Bergman’s film focuses on, in Marianne’s words, “fear, uncertainty, and ignorance.” Somewhere along the way, we have become complacent and have failed ourselves in terms of self-knowledge, and even, self-actualization. We are in denial and at a stalemate, and once again, we see how each film begins with one partner feeling the pressure to make a move.

With every bleak assessment of marriage I become more and more intrigued with our collective restlessness – or, at least, our examination of it through film. Marianne says it best when she remarks, “Sometimes it’s like husband and wife are talking on telephones that are out of order.” And while these films are depressing, it seems that each film has been a critical success in its own right. Each movie reveals something about human nature that most of us would rather ignore – that we have to work hard to maintain happiness and selfhood…and that we must be continuously honest with both our partners and with ourselves. Johan in Scenes notes, “We’re emotional illiterates. We’ve been taught about anatomy and farming methods in Africa. We’ve learned mathematical formulas by heart. But we haven’t been taught a thing about our souls. We’re tremendously ignorant about what makes people tick.” I would add to that that without a continued effort, we remain largely ignorant of what makes ourselves and our partners tick. Both films encourage honesty within communication and a continual effort to “be real.” For educated people, this all seems so simple, but, in reality, these things couldn’t be harder to practice in one’s everyday life.

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CLARISSA OLIVAREZ holds a Master's degree in Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master's degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives with her husband and two dogs in the Washington, DC area. Her writing has been published in Haggard & Halloo, Blood Lotus, Fogged Clarity, Midwest Literary Magazine, and an anthology entitled Winter Canons. She has taught at American University and Northern Virginia Community College.

6 responses to “Acting and Selfhood in Two Classic Divorce Films”

  1. Joe Daly says:

    Thought-provoking stuff, Clarissa. I haven’t seen either movie (having previously admitted a woeful ignorance of pre-1975 movies), but oddly, I do love Bergman. I would be interested in comparing these sometime.

    I do tend to enjoy movie techniques that showcase the story through gestures and expressions, as opposed to hitting us over the head with verbal meditations on grandiose social themes. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

    Well done.

  2. Thanks, Joe. They’re both great films, but I highly recommend “Scenes from a Marriage.” It’s a LONG movie, but it’s totally worth it. 🙂

  3. Actually, considering your comment, you might like “Faces” better. Anyway – both good films. Ok, I’m done.

  4. “Each movie reveals something about human nature that most of us would rather ignore – that we have to work hard to maintain happiness and selfhood…and that we must be continuously honest with both our partners and with ourselves.” This jumped out at me, this idea that both of these films make audiences face something the majority of them would rather ignore. Surely this is why such movies tend to be critically acclaimed rather than widely viewed. Movies with hard truths and/or ugly realities are among my favorites, though. Another thorough, well-presented analysis, Clarissa. I’m so glad you’re here to write smart things about smart movies!

  5. Clarissa Olivarez says:

    Thanks, Cynthia!

  6. “but, in reality, these things couldn’t be harder to practice in one’s everyday life.”

    Man, ain’t that the truth.

    The rest of the world just keeps getting in the damn way.

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