Film Review: HBO’s ‘Scenes From A Marriage’

by Koom Kankesan

Scenes From A Marriage, Hagai Levi’s reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s mini series of the same name, is easily the best thing I’ve seen on HBO in a long time. The original 1973 series which is one of the most painful Bergman projects to watch (and that’s saying something!) stars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a bourgeois Swedish couple who go through the searing process of divorce, scrutinizing their relationship and themselves in agonizing detail. There’s a lot of resentment and conflict in the original and it isn’t only limited to the emotional realm.

Bergman is one of those directors whom people don’t seem to discuss much anymore. His films always were challenging affairs but the long discussions that seem more suited to theatre than to film, painful mental and emotional intensities that dip into pits of despair without letting up, might be even more alienating to modern audiences who crave visual escape. That’s not to say Bergman’s a poor filmmaker or writer – far from it – director Olivier Assayas claims that Bergman is one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century. However, when doing an English (American) remake, it seems unlikely that anyone would consider Bergman’s many, many masterpieces as likely subjects. His agonizing treatments of the human condition are balanced by a driving need to take their stories of psychological shattering to unexpected conclusions, alongside a careful devotion to dramatic and visual filmmaking that often belies its modest sets and budgets.

That’s perhaps why Israeli director, Hagai Levi, and stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are the perfect trio to take it on. Levi’s become known for close character work in his projects including the Showtime series The Affair, and Chastain and Isaac are exceptional and nuanced actors who sometimes hit Meryl Streep-esque territory and sometimes get waylaid by more conventional projects. You just have to look at the 2014 film A Most Violent Year which stars Isaac and Chastain to see them working on much less subtle roles. Each of the five one hour episodes of Scenes From a Marriage demands exacting, highly attuned performances from the two who play Jonathan and Mira, a husband and wife hashing out an epic two hander set almost exclusively in their marital home. The first episode begins with them being interviewed about their lives, how they got together, their relationship to love and each other, their daughter, and all the other penetrating questions that will dissect the anatomy of any uneasy union contending with its own solidity and history. This leads to a scene later that evening where Jonathan and Mira entertain their friends who have an open marriage. Discussion of the interview quickly leads to all the fault lines in their friends’ union as the wife bares her feelings about the departure of her recent polyamorous partner and the problems with their arrangement.

In many ways, this follows the first episode of Bergman’s series but the differences, the nuances, are remarkable. While Bergman was being edgy, showing infidelity and the problems with bourgeois relationships that trapped and caused pain to their participants, Levi (who’s also the writer of his mini series) looks at the modern handling of polyamory. While both characters work in Bergman’s mini series, Mira is the primary breadwinner in the new one and Jonathan works from home, taking care of their daughter. Furthermore, Levi makes Jonathan a Jewish character whose Jewish identity must be contended with, both in terms of how he and Mira (she’s not Jewish) got together as well as what that means as they break up. As with Bergman’s first episode, Levi’s own first episode culminates with Mira revealing that she is pregnant and then the tortured decision, after the two hash it out, to terminate the pregnancy. The second episode reveals that time has passed and Mira has met someone else, seeing him on the sly, and that she now wants out of this suffocating marriage. Jonathan spends the night railing against her arguments, trying to prevent her from leaving. Subsequent episodes contend with the back and forth of separation agreements, reversals, feelings, all that messy and inconsistent stuff that is far from predictable in the human heart. What stands out, despite the general similarities that showcase how much we as humans lie to ourselves, is how authentic the new project feels to our lives and times, our sensibilities. The characters are only a little younger than me and they absolutely feel and act like real people. The intimacy and depth Levi achieves is remarkable.

Not having read anything about the mini series, I stumbled across it on my HBO service and was immediately prepared to be disappointed, checked it out more out of curiosity and boredom than anything else. The fact that it was so riveting and sustained its excellence throughout its five episode run is commendable. Each episode is separated from the former by a gap in time so we see how the relationship devolves and the two contend with their separation even while not being able to let each other go. What ultimately makes the project so excellent is that Levi has taken the spirit of the original, maintaining fealty to Bergman’s sensibility, while orchestrating a filmmaking style and writing sensibility that feels completely authentic and his own. It’s much more delicate than the seventies TV camera work Bergman managed for his own project. Each beat and moment is carefully worked out, the lighting and editing are highly controlled, and even though I sort of knew what I might expect, I was continually surprised. Gender roles have changed significantly since the seventies and of course, this couple lives in America, not Europe, but somehow it all seems of one lineage. Perhaps this might lead to the obvious conclusion that although mores have changed, human nature has changed very little or perhaps more likely, much of our popular entertainment has not changed enough. That is, we are still trying to catch up with the intensity and depth Bergman mined in abundance in his own projects. Hagai Levi’s work does a fine job of honouring that legacy and at the same time, excelling in its own right.

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