“Scenes from a Marriage” review: Searing update to Bergman original


Courtesy of HBO

HBO’s latest miniseries “Scenes from a Marriage” is more than just a remake of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s influential magnum opus. It also serves as a uniformly heart-wrenching update for the modern age, enriched by the magnetic performances of its lead actors Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.

Creator Hagai Levi keeps some of the general premise and even the titles of the episodes, referred here as “scenes,” from the original series. The only major change is that Chastain’s Mira is the breadwinner of the family, while her husband Jonathan, played by Isaac, is the caregiver. She works as an executive for a tech company, while he is a former Orthodox Jew turned humanities professor. Levi hits the ground running by adding a sense of timeliness, especially with regard to how gender dynamics have changed in the 40 years since the original.

Happily married for a decade, Jonathan and Mira are interviewed in the first episode “Innocence and Panic” by a sociology student (Sunita Mani) about how they have lasted this long. The couple have never really doubted the safety and stability of their relationship; however, fissures begin to appear in their united facade. As their marriage gradually crumbles over the course of five years, Jonathan and Mira discover harsh truths about themselves. They verbally and physically spar with each other, love and loathing evident in the ebb and flow of their conversations.

Chastain and Isaac are utterly incredible in their performances. Far from being compared to Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson from the original, they make the most out of their roles as the compulsive Mira and the reserved Jonathan. The series is essentially one long acting exercise after another, and the former Juilliard School classmates keep the viewer captivated at every turn. One feels a strong rapport with them, whether they reel from shocking revelations in “Poli” or come to blows in “The Illiterates.” The resulting emotional rollercoaster is a sight to behold, as Chastain and Isaac transcend the show’s heavy themes.

Hagai’s take on “Scenes from a Marriage” seems to be tailor-made for the pandemic era. Couples cooped up in their couches for so long may experience a pervading sense of déjà vu from the singular location setting of the series. Remaking Bergman’s brutally honest series is no easy feat, and yet somehow, Hagai manages to make it his own. He particularly inserts his own life experiences to the show, as an Israeli Jew grappling with the generational effects of the restrictive nature of marriage. In a scene from the final episode “In the Middle of the Night…,” Jonathan asks his mother (Tovah Feldshuh) about her relationship with her judgmental husband, which he regards as mostly a loveless affair. She tells him to shut up, citing that they stayed together this long for the kids.

As mentioned earlier, Levi cleverly swaps the power dynamics between Jonathan and Mira from Bergman’s original. However, his attempts to reconcile the conservative concept of monogamy with the 21st century fall flat at times. Bergman’s ruthless critique of marriage subscribes to the notion that any couple ironically starts to enjoy their relationship once they have freed themselves from the otherwise constrictive concept of marriage. Levi ultimately struggles to say something new for his remake, and he ends up rehashing Bergman’s concepts with some cosmetic changes.

Besides, each episode is punctuated with instances of fourth-wall breaking that calls attention to the show’s intimate production. We see Chastain and Isaac preparing for their roles, surrounded by masked crew members in an impersonal setting. Whether it calls back to Bergman’s penchant for theatricality in his films remains to be seen, but Levi’s deceit ultimately sends a mixed message. Are the viewers supposed to be relieved that they are watching a show, or should they let the emotional catharsis of what just transpired on their screens wash over them?

But that’s not to say that Levi made an entirely bad remake. In fact, I personally admire Levi’s decision to transplant Bergman’s series into the modern age. One interesting tidbit to consider about the latter is that divorce rates in Sweden allegedly skyrocketed when it was first aired there in 1973. Levi’s version likely won’t make similar waves, especially with our dependence on social media stifling meaningful discourse. Still, whatever starts a conversation between couples in need of a reexamination of their relationships is a welcome choice. No matter how potentially painful, an honest dialogue goes a long way. Besides, who can resist watching Chastain and Isaac air it out?

Click here to stream “Scenes from a Marriage” on HBO Max.

Illustration by Ariel Landry