Few works of art can convincingly depict two people falling in love. Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 television miniseries Scenes from a Marriage manages to depict people falling in and out of love repeatedly. From the beginning, when Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) are interviewed as a prototypical “happy couple” for a magazine, it’s clear their marriage will unravel, but nothing can prepare the viewer for the trajectory of their relationship. When Johan confesses that he has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne listens attentively, even understandingly, before anger shows in her face. Even so, she makes a heartbreaking offer to help him pack for his departure. What follows is even more full of the contradictions of love that are so common in life but so rare in the movies. To remake Scenes from a Marriage is bold, like asserting there is something in need of improvement or updating. And it quickly becomes apparent which elements writer/director/producer Hagai Levi (The Affair, In Treatment) thinks he can improve with his HBO remake of the series starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. Though faithful to the original’s narrative arc, this new version enacts changes loaded with cultural baggage.
Most significantly, Levi flips the gender roles. Where the woman was the primary caretaker for the children in Bergman’s series, it is now the father (Jonathan, played by Isaac). The wife (Mira, Chastain) is now the unfaithful partner. Levi also makes a play for multiculturalism; Jonathan is an off-the-derech adjunct professor, and the couple that acts as his and Mira’s foil in the first episode is now interracial and polyamorous. All these changes make for a more diverse, more parentally and sexually modern set of characters, presumably so the show is more palatable for the HBO viewer.
One might hesitate to object to an attempt at diversifying a work, but the implications are grim here, given how superficial the changes are. It suggests that a contemporary US audience cannot experience something from another time and place and understand it as a reflection of that milieu’s sentiments and ideas, and that they will instead see it as an instruction manual on how to think about its subject matter or characters. It is unlikely anyone ever watched Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage hoping to learn how to have a good relationship or recognize and deal with “toxicity” in a partner. That series is — and it has become so cliché to say this that we risk losing the ability to recognize this quality when it’s true — about what it means to be human, to struggle in love and not know what will happen next.
In any case, the show is fundamentally a chamber drama, meaning that much of the attempts at diversification amount to little more than first-episode optics management. Though polyamory is addressed in the first episode, the perspective remains stubbornly monogamous, even as each lead takes other partners. Not for a moment do they refer to their old friends (who, tellingly, are not just polyamorous but also miserable), and the only allusion to more modern parenting arrangements is inconsequential. Attempts to configure Jonathan’s faith and the nationality of Poli (an Israeli for whom Mira leaves him) into the plot lack any specificity. Levi is more dexterous in flipping the original’s gender roles. The dialogue successfully updates the scenario to a modern milieu, even as the plot hews close to the ebbs and flows of Bergman’s masterwork. And at no point is either character burdened with the weight of representing an entire gender.
What works about this remake does largely because — and Levi deserves full credit for emphasizing rather than obstructing this —it is a dual-star vehicle, if a depressing one. Each episode begins (save one, which ends) with either Chastain or Isaac arriving on set, walking to their place for the first scene, and seamlessly transitioning from actor to character as the clapboard appears and an offscreen voice calls “Action!” There is little dialogue for other characters, and when asked to carry every sequence with only the other to help, Chastain and Isaac both offer performances free of the burdens that have plagued their respective celebrity personas. There is none of the didactic moralism of scripts unworthy of Chastain’s talents or the franchise-branding nonsense that’s plagued Isaac. Chastain is asked to be insecure and ungenerous (before a marvelously played reversal in the final episode), and Isaac to be confused and vulnerable. They bury these traits under so many fronts that recede and surface again and again, often within the same sequence, and in ways that make them as believable in love as in hate. It would be unfair to expect a remake of Scenes from a Marriage to match its emotional potency, but this nearly manages to.
Dramatically, then, the new Scenes from a Marriage is impressive. Still, its biggest successes are not in its departures from the original but in its adherences to it, leaving open the question of what the point is beyond releasing viewers of the obligation to read subtitles. If we have so little faith that an audience can think intelligently about art, how can we expect art to think intelligently about life? It’s difficult to determine whether this adaptation is well-intentioned or cynical. Either way, Scenes from a Marriage (2021) is hard to justify when nothing is wrong with Scenes from a Marriage (1973).
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