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Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage exists at an interesting crossroads of influences. Bergman knew he was honoring and even directly referencing playwrights from Strindberg to Chekhov to Albee in his 1973 Swedish TV miniseries. The portrait of love and psychological warfare in a marriage in decline has subsequently become such a seminal text that to attempt to remake it now is to inevitably attract comparisons to 40-plus years’ worth of TV shows and movies it inspired, from the “serious” side of Woody Allen’s output to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy to the most recent season of Master of None to Blue Valentine and Marriage Story.
Hagai Levi, writer and director of HBO’s five-episode remake of Scenes From a Marriage, already owed the original series a debt of gratitude for its influence on the two-handed dramatics of BeTipul (and its American version, In Treatment) and the tortured infidelities and reconciliations of The Affair.
Saying that HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage feels derivative and insufficiently reflective could mean that it takes too few leaps from the source material or that it too much resembles countless subsequent properties that aspired to the label Bergmanesque. The high-emotion sparring between stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain is spectacular and provides some reason for viewers to invest in this stressful series. But that isn’t the same as understanding what Levi thought he had to add to such a revered framework.
You surely don’t need to have watched Scenes From a Marriage in its original television format or the edited cinematic incarnation — the latter is now available on HBO Max — but familiarity with the Bergman version enables you to see how small and superficial most of Levi’s changes are.
Isaac and Chastain play Jonathan and Mira, on the outside a perfect Boston-area couple. He’s a professor in the philosophy department at Tufts. She’s a tech bigwig of some sort. They have an adorable daughter and a ramshackle house with great bones, if they can only bring themselves to do the work to renovate it.
See, the house is a metaphor for life, or at least for marriage, because Jonathan and Mira are beset with insecurities as individuals and as a couple and their lives are about to be torn apart by sexual hang-ups, professional disparities, egos and feelings of inferiority, and by vestigial connections to religion, individualism and contemporary capitalism. Like the characters played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in the original, they’re white, heteronormative and bourgeois to a fault (or many faults). And, in extended snapshots over several years, everything is going to crumble.
The strangest thing is that Levi seems to be completely aware that he’s remaking this property in the least interesting way possible. An early scene finds Jonathan and Mira being interviewed by a graduate student about “how evolving gender norms affect monogamous marriages.” In the next scene, they’re at dinner with another couple, played by Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll, and Stoll’s character expresses confusion about why the student would be talking to Jonathan and Mira.
“There are so many other relationship models! It’s a new era,” he says. Accurately.
Levi has reversed most of the gender-based choices and personality traits from the original, not that “Men are the new women and women are the new men” has been a perceptive observation since the ’80s (or, more likely, the ’40s). He has also added a surface coat of Jewishness. Hollywood has decided that Isaac is Jewish, and I guess that if your kink is “Oscar Isaac saying ‘Purim,’ ” then Scenes From a Marriage delivers.
Otherwise, though, the fact that Jonathan was once Orthodox is treated as an empty series of data points — a challah on a table in one scene, a kippah attached to his hair with bobby pins in another. At no point did that minor embellishment make me think, “Well, now, this is a tale for 2021” in the way that changes to the economic circumstances, race or, particularly, sexuality might have done. Six years after the legalization of same-sex marriage would have been a perfect time for a same-sex Scenes From a Marriage, though I guess that’s what season three of Master of None was.
Another thing that Levi appears to be aware of: For all the intended naturalism of the performances and conversations, meant to give the impression of endlessly uncomfortable glimpses into the most uncomfortably intimate of human interactions, Scenes is an artificial conceit. Episodes begin with a Brechtian distancing device, following one star or the other through the backstage chaos on a television set, watching them settle into position and await the call of “Action.”
It’s a series that’s difficult to watch, all frayed nerve endings and the psychological torture that comes from loving and then hating somebody too much, and that framing device has the odd and presumably intentional effect of making Scenes From a Marriage feel almost like an escape. It reminds you that this isn’t just a TV series, but it’s a series based on a previous show, that it’s a fictional world in which nobody has to wear masks to ward off COVID, and that when they aren’t trying to eviscerate each other with words, our protagonists are “Oscar” and “Jessica.”
It’s an odd choice. Five hours is a lot to invest in a doomed marriage, especially one in which we spend only one hour with the characters before everything goes askew (Levi jumps the estrangement’s inciting event forward by an hour) without being reminded that it’s all theater. (Stage productions are another way the property has been adapted over the years.)
Still, it’s a reasonable choice for the series Levi has made, which isn’t going to blow anybody away with its insights into relationships or the modern condition, but absolutely and justifiably could blow people away with its two central performances. If this series results in Emmy nominations for Isaac and Chastain and leads people to seek out their combustible work in the criminally underrated 2014 feature A Most Violent Year, that would be worthwhile.
Chastain and Isaac are falling back — to the smallest measure, at least — on some of the dynamics from A Most Violent Year. Regardless of my skepticism toward Levi’s reasons for undertaking this remake, he is a tremendous performance-driven director, and he captures the animosity and desire between his two leads in a way that builds momentum from what is otherwise two people talking in a couple of rooms for five hours.
Chastain isn’t going full Lady Macbeth as she did in A Most Violent Year, but, in this five-hour dance, she’s leading. In a five-round fight, she’s the aggressor. She exposes Mira’s cruelty and combativeness and shows us how the assets that have helped her get ahead in business — masculine-coded several generations in the past — are the things she feels she has to repress in order to have an egalitarian marriage. Chastain was a late replacement for Michelle Williams, and in addition to sparing the production even more Blue Valentine comparisons, it’s hard not to feel like Chastain, who starred under Ullmann’s direction in the Strindberg adaptation Miss Julie (I’m assuming there was osmosis of some sort at work), wasn’t ultimately a better choice.
Isaac gets to be erudite and sensitive and spiritual, traits that are coded here as feminine. This is Isaac in one of my favorite of his modes: namely, a guy who comes across as cold and distant, but with an intensity you know will cause trouble eventually.
Together, they evoke arousal and very uncomfortable tension. And together they’re reason to watch Scenes From a Marriage, however uninspired its intellectual perspective happens to be.
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