(Als’s article appeared in the 10/6 New Yorker.)
Having an affair is certainly one way of shaking off the traditional constraints of matrimony, at least for a time, but, then again, what’s more conventional than an affair? Illicit love can get old fast, marred by the kinds of responsibilities one longs to escape: someone has to book that hotel room and hunt for those out-of-the-way restaurants where family and friends do not go. This cloak-and-dagger approach to love—to life—works only if you believe in marriage but hate it, too. For the self-dramatizing adulterer, life would be nothing without the pain of these contradictions.
In Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 film “Scenes from a Marriage,” we never actually see the protagonist, Johan (Erland Josephson), having the affair that derails his marriage to Marianne (Liv Ullmann). When Johan tells Marianne that he has fallen in love with someone else, our focus is less on what he’s saying than on his wife’s face as she registers it. Bespectacled, chewing on a sandwich, Marianne listens, rapt, as if she were watching a movie about the unravelling of someone else’s life. Johan wants to be “honest” with Marianne—they’ve shared everything, including, ironically, their family values—but how can you determine the truth of a relationship, when one partner has been deceitful, in order to protect himself and his dream of a free and different love?