Review: Bergman's 'Scenes From A Marriage' Gets the Treatment from Hagai Levi

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday September 12, 2021

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in 'Scenes from a Marriage'
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in 'Scenes from a Marriage'  (Source:Jojo Whilden/HBO)

Hagai Levi, who imported his own Israeli drama "Be'Tipul" to HBO as an American remake titled "In Treatment," brings a similar sense of in-the-moment intensity and emotional dislocation to his remake of Ingmar Bergman's classic 1973 miniseries "Scenes from a Marriage."

The update flips the script and modernizes the details, but the story remains the same: Over five episodes, Levi — together with stars and executive producers Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac — plucks key moments from a failing marriage over the course of several years, in order to show how gnawing discontent, submerged resentments, shared regrets, and unspoken blame unravel everything but the most essential bonds. Somehow, those endure despite heartbreak and crushed ambitions.

Levi writes and directs the entire series, condensing the original's six episodes into five. The abridgment isn't really noticeable; the major story beats are all intact, starting with the couple being interviewed about their marriage. Isaac plays Jonathan, a university professor; Chastain plays Mira, a corporate executive. She makes the lion's share of the money, and in this version it's she — rather than he — who falls in love with a colleague at work.

Mira's affair may be the reason for the couple's separation and plans for divorce, but it's not the precipitating factor. That would be Mira's unexpected pregnancy — all the more of a surprise since she's in her forties now. In one of the series' most delicately, painfully drawn exchanges, Jonathan and Mira discuss the prospect of having a second child. The conversation is disconcertingly frank (Mira calls their daughter's first few years a "nightmare" that she doesn't want to repeat), and yet there's also a tentativeness as they both circle the subject, and each other, looking for signals about how they each feel. This is not a marriage that feels safe or solid enough for honest, intimate dialogue.

A similar dynamic pervades the rest of the series, which is in large part just what the title suggests: "Scenes," most of them two-handers, that center around one or another specific moment, and yet draw in endless controversies and conflicts between the characters. Other people appear here and there: Corey Stoll and Nicole Behari share the screen as another couple, whose own experiment in having an open marriage is causing emotional carnage; a few others crop up along the way, including Lily Jane as their young daughter. But the focus remains on Mira and Jonathan. The emotions they provoke in one another change with kaleidoscopic ceaselessness, from rage to tenderness, from apprehension to nostalgia, from sorrow to lust. Nothing stays the same. Their lives are upended and their inner selves transformed — not always for the better.

"Scenes from a Marriage" is a slow-cooker, dialogue-heavy tour de force that tests both actors' ranges, and sometimes tests the viewer's patience. There's plenty of drama here, along with a some humor and even a fleeting same-sex kiss. Chastain and Isaac make the material compelling, especially as the series reaches its second half.

Levi is faithful to Bergman's original, even as makes some bold tweaks and major innovations. The fundamental question remains: Is lasting happiness possible between two people? Maybe; but a safer bet is lasting, and consolingly shared, unhappiness.

"Scenes from a Marriage" streams at HBO starting Sept. 12.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.