In 1973, Ingmar Bergman released Scenes from a Marriage. The seminal Swedish TV series saw a luminous Liv Ullmann and a tortured Erland Josephson play Marianne and Johan, whose marriage delights with the most elegant ugliness. Their pain is exquisite and their release hard won, but ultimately it is a victory for authenticity. Because these perfect people are trapped by convention.
“It was very political and very revolutionary,” said Hagai Levi, the Israeli director who just remade the series for HBO, with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in the lead roles. “And very scandalous! Back then, even the word “divorce” was shocking. In Bergman’s series, the couple are weighed down by the weight of their own apparent perfection, the abandonment of which makes them so emancipatory and so new. It wasn’t an Ibsen cover, a Doll’s House message (“it’s good to leave the wrong people”) but something much more seismic, in the 70s at least. Even though Johan is the jerk who takes off, the point is that sometimes neither party is bad – they just aren’t themselves until they go their separate ways.
It was made into a movie, won numerous awards, and became a conservative scarecrow, responsible for soaring divorce rates in Sweden and across Europe. Can a film have such an impact? Or is cinema not so much an engine as it is an iteration of changing standards? My parents separated around this time, 1976. I find it ticklish to imagine my mother’s face if my father had tried to stick it on Ingmar Bergman.
Undeniable, however, was his influence: From Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, subsequent couple films have used him as a staple. Bergman also haunts many recent projects, like Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach and the explosive Malcolm & Marie by Sam Levinson. Yet this is the first time that a director has used Bergman’s masterpiece as a shot and remakes it, “respecting the structure of each scene,” as Levi explains. However, the conclusion has never been so different.
Speaking of Tel Aviv, Levi tells me he’s kept the structure, but never intended to stick to the original script, and the new series opens with a beautifully awkward exchange. Mira, played with painful intensity by Chastain, and Jonathan, played by Isaac, are interviewed by a doctoral student about their marriage. They are asked to give their pronouns. “Him, him, his,” said Isaac with the enthusiasm of a man happy to be in tune with the times. “She,” Chastain begins shyly, and her husband fills in “her, hers” on top of it. Ah, you think, we’re in seemingly sensitive-the-husband-is-actually-a-jerk territory. But that’s not where we are at all.
Both performances are intense, but the pain on Isaac’s face as Chastain pulls 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, was crying every day on set. Each episode begins with a backstage tracking shot, tap dance panels and busy people. “I did that,” Levi says, “to show it’s a lot more abstract than this particular couple. It’s a scene, they are actors. Behind-the-scenes vanity invites you to put yourself in their shoes – even if I sincerely advise against you.
Chastain is the one who left, “and the moment I made her leave, I immediately felt closer to her,” Levi recalls. “I felt I understood his desperation and his need.” But if he reversed the gender dynamic – Mira is the bolter and breadwinner, Jonathan the constant and caregiver – Levi also reversed something much more fundamental. “If Bergman was talking about the price of marriage, he meant, basically, marriage kills love. I mean the price of separation. I don’t think we say enough about how difficult and traumatic it is to break up. ”
The work of sociologist Eva Illouz has led her to think differently about the results of the rupture. “I had divorced twice, [but] I hadn’t given much thought to this traumatic side of separation and divorce before reading [Illouz’s book] The end of love, ”he says. “How it affects you both psychologically and physically, how hard it is to trust and love again, how long it takes to recover.”
Of course, an exploration of marriage in 2021 would be different; the establishment has changed. As Levi says, “I think when you enter into a marriage right now, you already know it’s conditional. The contract is no longer final. We’re together until one of us feels it’s not for them anymore. The two characters… ”- he corrects himself laughing -“ sorry, both people be aware that this could be temporary. The logical basis for this – can you make a lifetime promise if you prioritize research for yourself? – is explored in the play’s “bad marriage”. Mira and Jonathan are, for a while at least, the “perfect” couple – happy parents, with their high-end cuisine and their super respectful and discursive tone.
The couple have two friends, designed as a counterpoint. In Levi’s version, Kate and Peter are a polyamorous couple with children. Kate’s boyfriend is done with her, and Peter is sulky that she had one in the first place (it seems relevant to note that he started it, with polyamory). “Kate says she is very proud that her children can see her in search of her own happiness and self-actualization,” says Levi. “I wrote this in a very ironic way, but it was perceived [by reviewers] like a very honest, and very pleasant, very convincing monologue.
We return to The End of Love, “a brilliant analysis of the connection between capitalism and relations. [Illouz] quotes a woman saying this exact phrase, “Shall I be true to this man or true to my truth?” Of course, I would choose the second. Which is amazing! “
The pursuit of happiness ruins all relationships in Levi’s Wedding Scenes, whether monogamous or not. Personal growth is another wheel on the gibberish of consumerism, a kind of senseless gratification. “You change your iPhone, you are encouraged to look for the new one,” says Levi. “Why shouldn’t marriage be part of it?” Why shouldn’t I look for a better model? “
So Levi’s conclusions are quite anti-American: is happiness the thing to look for? He admits this with surprise, having had a decades-long career in both Israel and the United States, previously easily transferring ideas from one to the other. The vanity of BeTipul, Levi’s drama in which a psychologist sees a changing cast of patients, has been transposed seamlessly into another HBO series, In Treatment. He comes across something disorienting in his Scenes from a Marriage: even though it is simply an American production, with an American distribution, it has a European sensibility. “For me, it’s American,” he said, “for you, it’s American. For them, it is not American enough.
Rather, it’s somewhere in between, with the influence of the original – the new show was initiated by Bergman’s son – combining with Levi’s formative screen experiences to create something powerfully recognizable. “Throughout my adolescence and my 20s [he was born in 1963], we only have one public TV 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 work, ”says Levi. “It wasn’t that I wanted to make her more beautiful per se, but I had more money…” The main visual difference is that her series takes place entirely in Mira and Jonathan’s house, with hyper-realism reminiscent of a later Scandinavian. movement, Dogma, a manifesto of strict rules for radical experimentation, as launched in the 90s by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.
“It’s helpful for me to have rules,” says the director. “Say this is your playground, 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 can be found in his hero, Jonathan, who was an Orthodox Jew who grew up and who sees his lost faith as the key to his identity. Lost religion and rule residues hang over the pursuit of happiness creed that Levi describes, according to Illouz, as our “superficial freedom.”
You can reasonably expect Scenes from a Marriage to be a remake, a respectful modernization of the original. But the exact opposite is true. If Bergman broke convention, Levi sifts through the crumbs, constantly lacerating himself and us, finding out what could be salvaged and what should never have been broken. It would be a reach to say that it could herald a worldwide increase in the number of people meeting. But it’s devastating, spellbinding, and – oddly – as quirky as the original.
Wedding scenes begin in UK on Sky Atlantic / Now on October 11