In a remote community in nineteenth-century Sweden, a husband and wife—the grocer Johan (Max von Sydow) and the pianist Karin (Liv Ullmann)—debate the relative merits of children, art, and marriage. Karin reveals that, after having suffered a series of nightmares in which God appeared as a lumbering and indifferent tarantula, she has struggled with maintaining an interest in their sexual life. Johan grows cold and silent. He exits to weep in a toolshed.
Johan consults a country priest (Gunnar Björnstrand). The priest, who is struggling with his own faith, suggests that perhaps we have all been neglected by God. He relates the story of his missionary work in the Caribbean, where he came to believe that man’s befoulment of nature and penchant for colonialist self-destruction were symptoms of an inability to love. (Also, he got into tropical fruit cocktails in a big way and brought the recipes back to Sweden.) The priest suggests that perhaps God, creating us in His own image, is but an apathetic spider after all. Johan screams to the heavens and beats his fists against a birch tree.
Withdrawing further from his wife, Johan speaks in wooden formalities. Karin compares their relationship to a flat, colorless interpretation of a Mozart opera. Humiliated, Johan reads the local newspaper while Karin sleeps. In the personals column, a woman—whom Johan presumes is a blithely spirited widow—is seeking a man. The letter is a radical experiment in self-definition. The woman likes strained pineapple cocktails and being caught in torrential downpours. She prefers her intercourse on the coastal dunes of the island of Fårö, at precisely twelve o’clock a.m., with men who are at least half-witted and against the idea of posture-based exercise. Johan considers this. The thoughts it inspires fill him with passion and sorrow.
In a dilapidated greenhouse, Johan composes a letter to the mystery woman. He recognizes that he is thinking only of his emotional needs and that this action carries a weight of marital cruelty. Heavy fog presses against panes of discolored glass. He writes that he is receptive to the widow’s preferences. Not only is he against posture-based exercise, but he also dislikes natural food. Not only is he partial to strained pineapple cocktails, but he also admires the flavor of champagne. He tells her they ought to outmaneuver the bureaucracy and meet at noon tomorrow in a local watering hole owned by an Irish immigrant.
Johan arrives early and waits. In silent agony, he runs his fingers along the peeling wallpaper. The barman, O’Malley (Erland Josephson), makes biblical allusions.
The mystery woman arrives. Much to our surprise, she is no widow, but Karin. She presses her lips together until they turn white. “Oh, it’s you,” she says.
Johan explains himself. “I never knew.” He was unaware that Karin liked strained pineapple cocktails, unexpected cloudbursts, Fårö’s cold and frothy tide, and the flavor of champagne. Karin notes that champagne was mentioned only in Johan’s letter, and not her own.
Still at O’Malley’s, Johan makes a solemn request: If you would choose intercourse at exactly twelve o’clock a.m., then perhaps reconciliation is possible, and we ought to escape together. For reasons unknown, Johan then repeats his entire speech (about their previously unknown and existentially defining likes and dislikes) three times as the picture fades to white.
O’Malley notes it was three times that Peter denied Jesus, and wasn’t Jesus in Gethsemane at midnight?
Johan and Karin stumble on a dirt road. Midnight approaches. Is it future, or is it past? A thick mist turns slowly to a light sprinkle. Droplets splatter on Johan’s forehead. They have been caught in the rain.