In 1973, Ingmar Bergman published Scenes of a Marriage. The seminal Swedish television series saw a luminous Liv Ullmann and a tortured Erland Josephson play Marianne and Johan, whose marriage is delightful with the most elegant ugliness. His pain is exquisite and his release hard-won, but it is, in the end, a victory for authenticity. Because these perfect people are caught up in the conventions.
“It was very political and very revolutionary,” says Hagai Levi, the Israeli director who just remade the series for HBO, with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in the lead roles. “And very outrageous! Back then, even the word ‘divorce’ was shocking. “In Bergman’s series, the couple is crushed under the weight of their own apparent perfection, the resignation of which makes them feel so emancipatory and so novel. This was not a rehash of Ibsen, a message from Doll’s House (“it’s okay to leave bad people”) but something much more seismic, at least in the 70s. Although Johan is the idiot who takes off, the point is: sometimes neither part is bad, just they are not themselves until they part.
It was made into a movie, won numerous awards, and turned into a conservative nightmare, responsible for increasing divorce rates in Sweden and across Europe. Can a movie have that much impact? Or is cinema not so much a driver as an iteration of changing norms? My parents separated around this time, 1976. It tickles me to imagine my mother’s face if my father had tried to hit Ingmar Bergman.
Yet his influence was undeniable: from Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, later films about couples used him as a staple. Bergman also stalks many recent projects, such as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie Blast. However, this is the first time a director has used Bergman’s masterpiece as a model and remade it, “keeping the structure of each scene,” as Levi explains. However, the conclusion has never been more different.
Speaking from Tel Aviv, Levi tells me that he kept the structure, but never intended to stick to the original script, and the new series begins with a wonderfully awkward exchange. Mira, played with painful intensity by Chastain, and Jonathan, played by Isaac, are interviewed by a PhD student about their marriage. They are asked to give their pronouns. “He, he, hers,” Isaac says with the enthusiasm of a man happy to keep up. “She,” Chastain begins tentatively, and her husband completes “she, she” at the top. Ah, you think, we’re in apparently-sensitive-husband-is-actually-an-idiot territory. But that’s not where we are at all.
Both performances are intense, but the pain on Isaac’s face when Chastain turns away from him, the shadow of his terror as he eats spaghetti and thinks he sees disgust in his eyes, is so precise that I had to look away. Rumor has it that Chastain, at least, cried every day on set. Each episode begins with a behind-the-scenes follow-up shot, clapper boards, and busy people. “I did that,” says Levi, “to show that he is much more abstract than this specific couple. It’s a stage, these are actors. ”Backstage conceit invites you to put yourself in their shoes, although I sincerely advise you not to.
Chastain is the one who left, “and the moment I made her leave, I immediately felt closer to her,” Levi recalls. “I felt like I understood her desperation and her need.” But if the gender dynamic has changed: Mira is the bolter and breadwinner, Jonathan the constant and the caretaker, Levi has also reversed something much more fundamental. “If Bergman was talking about the price of marriage, he basically meant that marriage kills love. I want to talk about the price of separation. I don’t think we talk enough about how difficult and traumatic it is to break up. ”
Sociologist Eva Illouz’s work made her think differently about the price of parting ways. “I had been divorced twice, [but] I hadn’t thought much about that traumatic side of separation and divorce until I read [Illouz’s book] The end of love, ”he says. “How it affects you both psychologically and physically, how difficult it is to trust and love again, how long does it take to recover.”
Of course, an exploration of marriage in 2021 would be different; the institution has changed. As Levi puts it: “I think when you get married right now, you know it’s conditional. The contract is no longer final. We are together until one of us feels that it is no longer for them. Both characters … “- he corrects himself laughing -” I’m sorry, both people I know it could be temporary. “The rationale for that – is it possible that you can make a lifetime promise if you are prioritizing the search for yourself? – is explored in the piece’s” bad marriage “. Mira and Jonathan are , at least for a while, the “perfect” couple: happy parents, with their high quality cuisine and their discursive and super respectful tone.
The couple has two friends, conceived as a counterpoint. In Levi’s version, Kate and Peter are a polyamorous couple with children. Kate’s boyfriend has broken up with her, and Peter is sulking that she had one in the first place (it seems fitting to note that he started it, with polyamory). “Kate says she is very proud that her children can really see her seeking their own happiness and self-fulfillment,” says Levi. “I wrote that in a very ironic way, but it felt [by reviewers] as a very honest and very nice monologue, very convincing. “
We return to The End of Love, “a brilliant analysis of the connection between capitalism and relationships. [Illouz] quotes a woman who says exactly this phrase: ‘Should I be loyal to this man or loyal to my truth? Of course I would choose the second. How amazing! “
The pursuit of happiness ruins all relationships in Levi’s Marriage Scenes, monogamous or not. Self-actualization is another wheel in the character of consumerism, a kind of meaningless gratification. “If you change your iPhone, you are encouraged to find the new one,” says Levi. “Why wouldn’t marriage be part of that? Why shouldn’t you look for a better model? “
Levi’s conclusions are quite un-American, so: is happiness what to pursue? He acknowledges this with surprise, having had a decades-long career in both Israel and the US, and previously moved ideas from one to the other with ease. The conceit of BeTipul, Levi’s drama in which a psychologist sees a changing cast of patients, transposed seamlessly into another HBO series, In Treatment. It lands on something disorienting about his Marriage Scenes: that even though it’s clearly an American production, with an American cast, it has a European sensibility. “For me, it is American,” he says, “for you it is American. It’s not American enough for them. “
Rather, it’s somewhere between the two, with the influence of the original (the new show was instigated by Bergman’s son) combining with Levi’s formative screen experiences to create something powerfully recognizable. “During my teens and 20s [he was born in 1963]We only have one public television channel in Israel, and I guess they didn’t have enough money to buy American shows. We had a lot of British television. The singing detective! Dennis Potter was my god. “
As for aesthetics, he describes the original as “almost ugly, [Bergman’s] The cinematographer always called it his ugliest job, ”says Levi. “It wasn’t that I wanted to make it prettier on its own, but I had more money…” The main visual difference is that their series takes place entirely in Mira and Jonathan’s house, with a hyper-realism reminiscent of a later Scandinavian movement, Dogme, a manifesto of strict rules for radical experimentation pioneered in the 1990s by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.
“It’s helpful for me to have rules,” says the director. Say, this is your playing field, so be free within those limits. Probably also because I was religious myself. Until the age of 20 I was an Orthodox Jew ”. His background is reflected in his hero, Jonathan, who was a growing up Orthodox Jew and maintains that lost faith is the key to his identity. Lost religion and the residue of rules hang over the creed of the pursuit of happiness that Levi describes, according to Illouz, as our “superficial freedom.”
It’s reasonable to expect Scenes from a Marriage to be a remake, a respectful modernization of the original. But the truth is exactly the opposite. If Bergman broke conventions, Levi sneaks through the shatters, constantly lacerating himself and us, discovering what could be saved and what should never have been broken. It would be a reach to say that it may herald a global increase in people getting back together. But it is devastating, fascinating and, strangely, as original as the original.
Scenes from a marriage begins in the UK on Sky Atlantic / Now October 11
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism