Books: Visions Before Midnight — The higher trash | clivejames.com
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The higher trash

Its fourth angst-ridden episode having been duly transmitted to the nation, the Bergman blockbuster Six Scenes From a Marriage (BBC2) stands nakedly revealed as the Higher Trash. After more than fifteen years of joyless cohabitation, Ingmar and I are through.

Instead of being equipped with subtitles, a device presumably eschewed as being too off-putting for the hordes of proletarians the Beeb hoped to snare with Bergman’s Scandinavian magic, the series has been dubbed, in a fashion so comprehensively disastrous that the reeling viewer suspects the television set of having developed a split personality. Has the tuning mechanism ruptured a rheostat and started picking up an old Lana Turner movie playing on the commercial channel? Certainly no such voices, in this day and age, can be heard anywhere else than in the cocktail lounge of the daily Pan-Am jumbo from Heathrow to Boston as it trails its lumbering shadow across the stratocumulus over mid-Atlantic. Marianne sounds like a well-stoned fashion correspondent blowing bubbles through a dry martini. Johan sounds like the bloke who bought it for her. Separate, they’re amazing. Together they’re incredible.

The voices violate the dialogue, but since the dialogue is a corpse the crime is necrophilia rather than rape. I imagine, however, that Bergman’s heftily deployed sentiments evinced a hint more snap in the original Swedish. The English translation (which for those with a taste for calcified prose can be obtained in a Calder and Boyars paperback at £1.95) is muesli without milk. A single mouthful would be quite sufficient to choke any actor in the world. Guess what Marianne said to Johan in Episode Two, when they were driving along together in the morning? ‘What fun it is driving along together in the morning!’ And the word ‘for’ is consistently employed in place of ‘because’ — a usage hitherto confined to formal poetry and Daily Express editorials.

Nobody has ever talked the way these two talk in the whole of English history. The translation is the merest transliteration, which it would have been a matter of elementary competence — requiring about two days of an averagely endowed writer’s time — to work into a speakable text. You don’t have to be able to speak Swedish to change ‘What fun it is’ into something an actress can say. All you have to be able to do is speak English.

That the chat clouds the issue, however, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the issue is dead. The real trouble with the alliance between Marianne and Johan — a trouble which Bergman hasn’t begun to examine, being too busy with focusing his pitiless analytical glance — is that they could have no possible reason for being interested in each other in the first place. Liv Ullmann is hardly the earth mother she is cracked up to be (a few weeks ago in this very newspaper, A. Alvarez was to be seen promoting her as a combination of Eleanora Duse, Sieglinde in Die Walküre, and Edwige Feuillère), but the awkward truth that she fades on the mind’s eyes almost as fast as Monica Vitti or Jeanne Moreau doesn’t make her entirely weightless: she has more than enough substance to give the diaphanous role she is playing the pulse of real blood. How, though, did Marianne ever see anything in Johan? And Johan being Johan, how could he have seen anything in her, or anyone?

Johan, functionary of something called a Psychotechnical Institute and failed poet (striving devoutly to distance his own personal experience, Bergman can get only as far as foisting it on a failed artist: a non-artist is beyond his powers), finds after years of keeping up appearances with Marianne that his passion for another girl commands him away. So he lets Marianne in for a burst of the bitter truth. ‘I’m trying to be as honest as I can — but by God it’s not easy.’

What made this scene (the core of Episode Three) unintentionally laughable was Bergman’s innocent failure to realize that Johan’s sudden cruelty, far from revealing him as a passionate rebel, merely branded him as a perennial zombie.

It is difficult to over-emphasize sex, but very easy to over-isolate it, and Bergman’s whole effect is of a puritanical hedonism in which sex includes all possible means of contact instead of being the most important of several. That his characters do not amuse each other is not surprising, since Bergman — despite Smiles of a Summer Night and his early grounding in comedy — has a sense of humour considerably inferior to that of F. R. Leavis. But they have nothing else to offer each other either.

In this context, it is natural that sexual gratification should be thought to equal happiness and that happiness should be sought as an end — a monomaniacal defiance of the axiom that happiness is not a worthwhile aim in life, and can exist only as a by-product of absorption. And Bergman’s continuing problem is that he is not quite enough of an artist to imagine what people who are not artists could possibly be involved with. ‘What will I say to the children?’ wails Marianne as Johan stomps out. ‘Say what you like,’ growls Johan, and Bergman honestly believes that he is showing us the interplay of real emotions, instead of putting on a carbolic soap opera. ‘If all the people who live together were in love,’ says Baptiste in Les Enfants du Paradis, ‘the earth would shine like the sun.’ Nobody is ever going to call Jacques Prévert, who wrote that film, a fearless investigator of marriage — yet compare the shattered pleadings of Maria Casarès with anything that Bergman can provide for Liv Ullmann, and ask yourself which is the explorer, the romantic or the realist.

2 March, 1975