Mon. Jul 4th, 2022

IIn 1973, Ingmar Bergman released scenes from a marriage. The landmark Swedish TV series saw a brilliant Liv Ullmann and a tortured Erland Josephson play Marianne and Johan, whose marriage tastes of the most elegant ugliness. Their pain is exquisite and their liberation hard won, but it is — in the end — a victory for authenticity. For these perfect people are caught by convention.

“It was very political and very revolutionary,” said Hagai Levi, the Israeli director who has just remade the series for HBO, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. “And very outrageous! At the time, even the word ‘divorce’ was shocking. In Bergman’s series, the couple is crushed by the weight of their own apparent perfection, whose renunciation makes it feel so emancipating and so new. This was not an Ibsen rehash, a dollhouse message (“it’s OK to leave bad people”), but something much more seismic, at least in the 70s. Although Johan is the jerk that takes off, the point is: sometimes neither party is bad – they are simply not themselves until they divorce.

It became a film, won several awards and became a conservative bugbear, responsible for increasing divorce rates in Sweden and throughout Europe. Can a movie have such an impact? Or is the cinema not so much a driver as an iteration of changing norms? My parents split up around this time, 1976. I think it’s tickling to imagine my mother’s face if my father had tried to put it on Ingmar Bergman.

However, its influence was undeniable: from Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, subsequent films about couples used it as a staple. Bergman also pursues many recent projects, such as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Sam Levinson’s explosive Malcolm & Marie. Still, it’s the first time a director has used Bergman’s masterpiece as a blueprint, and made it again, “sticking to the structure of each scene,” as Levi explains. However, the conclusion has never been more different.

Scenes from a marriage.
So accurate that I had to look away … Scenes from a marriage. Photo: Jojo Whilden / HBO

Levi tells from Tel Aviv that he 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 Ph.D. students about their marriage. They are asked to give their pronoun. “He, him, his,” Isaac says with a desire for a man who wants to keep up with the times. “She,” Chastain begins tentatively, and her husband fills in “her, hers” over the top. Ah, you think we’re in the seemingly sensitive-man-is-actually-an-asshole area. But that’s not where we are at all.

Both performances are intense, but hurt in Isaac’s face as Chastain pulls away from him — the shadow of his terror as he eats spaghetti and thinks he sees disgust in her eyes — is so accurate that I had to look away. Rumor has it that Chastain at least cried every day on the set. Each episode begins with a behind-the-scenes tracking shot, clapping boards and busy people. “I did it,” Levi says, “to show that it is much more abstract than this specific couple. It’s a scene, it’s actors. The backstage imagination invites you to put yourself in their shoes – although I would sincerely advise you not to do so.

Chastain is the one to leave, “and the moment I had her gone, I immediately felt closer to her,” Levi recalls. “I felt like I understood her desperation and her needs.” But if he has reversed the gender dynamics – Mira is the stronger and provider, Jonathan constantly and the caregiver – Levi has also reversed something much more fundamental. “If Bergman talked about the price of marriage, he would basically say that marriage kills love. I want to talk about the price of separation. I do not think we are talking enough about how difficult and traumatic it is to separate. ”

The work of sociologist Eva Illouz made him think differently about tolls by splitting up. “I was divorced twice, [but] I had not thought much about the traumatic side of separation and divorce before I read [Illouz’s book] The end of love, ”he says. “How it affects you both psychologically and physically, how hard it makes it to trust and love again, how long it takes to recover.”

Of course, an exploration of marriage in 2021 would be different; the institution has changed. As Levi says: “I think that when you enter into a marriage right now, you already know that it is conditional. The contract is no longer final. We are together until one of us feels that it is nothing for them anymore. Both characters … ”- he corrects himself and laughs -“ sorry, both people know that it may be temporary. The logical basis for that – can you possibly give a lifelong promise if you prioritize the search for yourself? explored in the play’s ‘bad marriage’. Mira and Jonathan are at least for a while the “perfect” couple-happy parents with their high special kitchen and their super respectful, discursive tone.

The couple has two friends, perceived 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 angry that she had one in the first place (it seems appropriate to note that he started it with the polyamorie). “Kate says she feels very proud that her children can actually see her looking for her own happiness and self-actualization,” Levi says. “I wrote it in a very ironic way, but it was perceived [by reviewers] as a very honest and very nice monologue, very convincing. ”

Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Bergman's scenes from a marriage.
Destructive … Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Bergman’s scenes from a marriage. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

We return to The End of Love, “a brilliant analysis of the connection between capitalism and relationships. [Illouz] quotes a woman who says this exact phrase, ‘shall I be loyal to this man or loyal to my truth? Of course I would choose the other. ‘Which is amazing! ”

The pursuit of happiness destroys all relationships in Levi’s scenes from a marriage, whether they are monogamous or not. Self-fulfillment is another wheel on the nature of consumerism, a kind of thoughtless gratification. “You change your iPhone, you’re encouraged to look for the new one,” Levi says. “Why would marriage not be a part of it? Why should I not look for a better model? ”

Levi’s conclusions are thus quite un-American: is happiness what one should pursue? He recognizes this surprise, having had a decades-long career in both Israel and the United States, which in the past easily transferred ideas from one to the other. The imagination for BeTipul, Levi’s drama, in which a psychologist sees a changing number of patients, was seamlessly transferred to another HBO series, In Treatment. He lands on something disorienting about his scenes from a marriage: that although it is clearly an American production, with an American cast, it has a European sensitivity. “To me it’s American,” he says, “to you it’s American. For them, it is not American enough ”.

Rather, it is a place between the two, influenced by the original – the new show was instigated by Bergman’s son – combined with Levi’s formative screen experiences to create something highly recognizable. “Throughout my teens and 20s [he was born in 1963], we only one public TV channel in Israel and I guess they did not have enough money to buy American shows. We had a lot of British television. The singing detective! Dennis Potter was my god. ”

As for the aesthetic, he describes the original as “almost ugly, [Bergman’s] cinematographer always called it his ugliest work, ”says Levi. “It was not that I wanted to make it more beautiful in itself, but I had more money …” The biggest visual difference is that his series takes place exclusively in Mira and Jonathan’s house, with a hyperrealism reminiscent of a later Scandinavian movement, Dogme, a manifesto for strict rules for radical experiments as a pioneer in the 90s by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.

“It’s helpful for me to have rules,” the director says. “To say this is your room for maneuver, so be free within these limits. Probably also because I myself was religious. Until I was 20 years old, I was an Orthodox Jew ”. His background is reflected in his hero, Jonathan, who was an Orthodox Jew growing up and has his lost faith as the key to his identity. Lost religion and the remnants of rules weave over the pursuit of creed, which Levi, according to Illouz, describes 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 smashed the convention, Levi seeps through the blacksmiths, constantly destroying himself and us, figuring out what could have been saved and what should never have been broken. It would be a farce to say that it could herald a global increase in people coming together again. But it is destructive, enchanting and – bizarrely – as original as the original.

Scenes from a marriage begin in the UK on Sky Atlantic / Now on October 11th

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