If the near future of TV is endless reinterpretations and remakes of intellectual property — more superheroes, more ‘Star Wars’, a new ‘Fantasy Island’, a new ‘Wonder Years’ — perhaps it was inevitable that the trend would turn to one of the 20th century’s enduring superbrands: Ingmar Bergman.
‘Scenes From a Marriage’, Bergman’s six-part 1973 series for Swedish television (later edited into a film), was a slow, subtle work that made a big noise. Following a couple (Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s former romantic partner) through the collapse of their marriage and beyond, ‘Scenes’ inspired enough real-life soul searching that it was even credited with a rise in the Swedish divorce rate.
Like many a dissolved marriage, it also left behind descendants. Most directly, there are the talky love-dissection films of Woody Allen, Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach, among others. More diffusely, you can see traces of it in TV series that delve into relationships and psychology, from ‘thirtysomething’ to the recent ‘Master of None’ season, ‘Moments in Love’.
Hagai Levi has been producing works in that vein for years, including the Israeli ‘BeTipul’ and its Americanisation, ‘In Treatment’, as well as Showtime’s ‘The Affair’, which applied Bergmanian pathos to a crime mystery. Now the artistic child is returning to the primal ‘Scenes’. Levi’s five-episode update of the series, which begins Sunday on HBO, is a soulful study of intimacy that reminds us of the power of the original but without quite making the case for an update.
Bourgeois Sweden is replaced here by a bourgeois Boston-area neighbourhood; Josephson and Ullmann by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac; and the stage-like rawness of Bergman’s production by the muted light and design-catalogue aesthetic of upper-middle-class cable drama.
Set dressing aside, Levi’s major change is roughly to swap the gender roles of the leads. Mira (Chastain), a corporate product manager, is the higher-paid half of the couple, rising in her career and nursing doubts about the marriage. Jonathan (Isaac) is content taking a bigger role in raising their daughter while working mostly from home as an academic.
As in the original, the new ‘Scenes’ introduces the couple by having them interviewed, this time by a researcher doing a study on monogamous relationships. In Bergman’s version, the husband holds forth smugly while Ullmann’s character is reticent.
This time the man does much of the talking again — some things never change! — but the dynamic is different. Jonathan seems to be working to convince not just the interviewer but also himself that he is enlightened and self-aware, that he values their marriage while having the right intellectual scepticism of matrimony, that their partnership is, in the researcher’s words, a “success.” Mira’s quiet is less a sign of a power relationship than a signal that she has been reaching different conclusions.
That question of “success,” a weird yet familiarly meritocratic way to talk about love and intimacy, hangs over the series. Is success a stable cooperative team effort, two good careers, involved parenting and home-renovation plans?
The five episodes are not actually titled ‘Denial’, ‘Anger’, ‘Bargaining’, ‘Depression’ and ‘Acceptance’, but they cover the stages of marital grief in much that way. Levi’s scripts (two co-written with Amy Herzog) borrow lines from Bergman’s original, but the voice is distinct. The instalments are play-like, generally involving a handful of scenes that cover a short span of time; the movement comes in the conversations, which shift naturally from banality to flirtation to viciousness to dEtente.
Levi is a deft emotional choreographer, and Chastain and Isaac are the dancers you want executing the steps. Jonathan is a type Isaac plays well, a reflective intellectual with a “need for moral superiority” who holds a lot of resentment and familial-religious angst behind that lush beard. Chastain’s Mira is both more expressive and more controlled; she has less guilt about wanting more from life and love, but she’s more volatile than she lets the world see.
When they fight, they fight explosively; one confrontation turns uncomfortably physical. Their muscle-memory sexual attraction is wholly believable. (I remind you: They are played by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.) Their connection comes through in tiny moments, as when Jonathan packs a suitcase for Mira, simultaneously an act of love and aggression.
It’s all well observed and exquisitely acted, yet this ‘Scenes’ seems to have defied Tolstoy by finding an unhappy family that is unhappy in a very familiar way. The gender swap may say something about husbands and wives redefining their roles, but TV has had a half century of heterosexual marriage stories since Bergman to work that one out.
Another small difference is that Jonathan and Mira’s daughter, Ava (Lily Jane), is a greater presence — both on-screen and in conversation — than the children in the original. This may reflect the more hands-on style of this class of American parents compared with the free-range Swedes of the ‘70s, but it also makes her a kind of externalisation of the marriage, connecting the couple in one being.
Even if you haven’t seen the original series (streaming on the Criterion Channel), none of these dynamics will seem very novel. And if you have, this ‘Scenes’ feels less like a reimagining than like a highbrow stage revival — movie stars spending a few weeks doing Ibsen at a summer theatre fest.
That feeling is only heightened by a distracting framing device, which breaks the fourth wall by showing us Chastain and Isaac, as Chastain and Isaac, on set in the midst of a COVID-era production, surrounded by lights and mask-wearing crew. I’m sure there’s some thought-through reason that would sound good on the page, but in practice it’s a bucket of cold water on a story whose purpose is body-temperature intimacy.
Of course, “Look at these talented stars in this classy production” has been a successful draw before. Whether it’s enough for you may determine whether you call it a wrap before ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ does.