The televised "Scenes From a Marriage" is the story of a man and a woman who are not race drivers, undercover cops or partial computers. There are no car chases, no gun duels, no murders, rapes, hijackings, holdups or stompings. Nobody gets possessed by the devil or comes back from the dead or drops in from another planet.
It is about regular people, a marriage counselor and a psychologist. It is about a marriage, with children, inlaws, dinner parties and fights covering a span of 20 years. It is about growth. It is about life. Will the American TV audience sit still for it?
Starting tonight, the full 300-minute version of Ingmar Bergman's most lucid work will premiere on Channel 26 at 10 p.m., continuing for five more Wednesdays.
In Sweden the series - later cut down to make a long movie - brought the whole country to a standstill, emptying the streets at show time, causing changes in the nation's divorce laws, swamping the offices of marriage counselors.
Whether it will have a powerful impact here is a question that could give us interesting insights into our own television-guided standards of taste.
Though its voices are dubbed, "Scenes From a Marriage" often works better in this original form than in the movie version. For one thing, those closeups of faces are easier to take than they were on a 40-foot screen.
More to the point, while the added material slows the action, it also creates a powerful effect: The couple's breakup is foreshadowed, tension builds, aftershocks reverberate.
The split-up itself, when Johan tells Marianne he is leaving her, has to be one of the most shattering scenes on film Watching Liv Ull mann's face as Erland Josephson assaults her with one shock after another - he's in love, he's going to Paris with the other woman, he's taking a six-month leave - is almost too painful. With the extra footage on TV, the scene still has filmic impact, but now it is somehow more personal, more involving. We are given time to realize the feelings the abandoned wife must live with.
The brains of show biz have always tended to slow things down for the popular market. Hollywood versions of Broadway musicals always seem twice as long, the songs sung at half-speed. This is one time when the device actually adds dimensions. A dialogue in the final episode between Marianne and her mother gives the whole story new richness and scope, placing one woman's discovery of herself in the context of other women, other generations.
For this is basically a woman's case history, and as such, it is bound to heighten men's awareness too. Even in the breakup scene, the wife is constantly tending and supporting the husband. And he accepts it all as his due. She packs his bag for him. She fixes his split fingernail. She shores him up as he is accustomed to being shored up.
In the later episodes, as Marianne gains in confidence, Johan seems to shrink, until at the end he is revealed, like the Wizard of Oz, as an ordinary human-scale person.
"I think perhaps I've stopped defending myself," Johan says finally. "Someone said I'd grown slack and gave in too easily. That I diminished myself. It's not true. If anything, I think I've found my right proportions. And what I've accepted my limitations with a certain humility. That makes me kind and a bit sad . . ."
Very instructive. As Ullman, says in her introduction, "They discover bonds far stronger than the marriage contract." They are, in fact, both married to other people by this time and are seeing each other illicitly, a touch of dry Swedish humor which nicely matches the mood. Because when you come right down to it, what this picture is about is learning not to take yourself so seriously.