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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Hagai Levi's 'Scenes' runs parallel to Bergman's

by Philip Martin | October 3, 2021 at 1:37 a.m.
Jessica Chastain stars in “Scenes From a Marriage.” (HBO)

After taking a pandemic-enforced break, I'm going back to the gym several days a week. I take my iPad for the cardio sessions. Part of my job involves watching things, so this way I can work while I'm working out.

Lately I've been watching the HBO miniseries "Scenes From a Marriage," written and directed by Hagai Levi, a former film critic in his native Israel and showrunner responsible for HBO's "In Treatment" series (based on the Israeli series "Be'Tipul," which Levi had a hand in creating) and Showtime's "The Affair."

I didn't get any preview screeners for the series, so I'm not any farther along in it than anyone else. I've seen three episodes; the fourth (of five) has its premiere tonight. My wife, Karen, and I started watching the first one together, but didn't finish it, mostly because we had other viewing obligations. (She is on the jury for an award at Wichita's Tallgrass Film Festival, which will be held toward the end of the month. She had four features to watch and evaluate. They were all pretty good.)

I figured we would put "Scenes From a Marriage" down for a while, maybe circle back to it later. It wasn't going anywhere and we have a tradition of watching HBO's prestige series well after they've debuted.

But then the Arkansas Cinema Society announced that Jessica Chastain, one of the stars of the new "Scenes From a Marriage," was coming to Arkansas for the society's Filmland event, which is wrapping up today. I've seen almost all of Chastain's movie work and thought it might be a good idea to catch this in case I bumped into her.

So instead of watching documentaries on Netflix or a movie that's unlikely to open here, I started watching the show at the gym. There are some advantages to this. The second episode in particular has a couple of scenes that are genuinely frightening in their domestic verisimilitude. They might have made for an uncomfortable couch watch.

I am familiar with the source material for the HBO series: Ingmar Bergman's six-part 1973 series for Swedish television titled "Scener ur ett aktenskap." But I don't believe I ever watched the television series. Instead I watched the two-hour, 49-minute movie that Bergman made of the series.

(Which might be reason — or excuse — enough to pick up the Criterion Collection DVD. For the past few winters I've been leading classes on television series — we've done Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue," David Milch's "Deadwood," Ray McKinnon's "Rectify" and will do the first season of Mike White's "Enlightened" in 2022. I'm penciling in Bergman's "Marriage" for 2023.)

The entire series ran 283 minutes, so there's about 40% that I haven't seen. Almost everyone who has seen both agrees that the series is better, that Bergman was forced to compromise his vision to accommodate conventional running times.

Yet I can see what HBO is doing with this updated version. It's fairly faithful to the original, with some of the episodes bearing the same title.

So it's no spoiler to say that the couple at the center of the show only appears happy. When we meet Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Chastain), they are about to be interviewed by a graduate student who is doing research on "successful" married couples. She wants to know why Jonathan and Mira think they have been able to survive 10 years together.

That is a milestone — marriages in the United States last on average 8.2 years. The divorce rate in this country is declining, and the percentage of marriages that end in divorce is a little under 50%. So people have a better chance of staying together than not.

But this particular marriage is likely unsustainable. Because even if we know nothing about Bergman's 1973 forerunner, we might suspect no one would make a television series about domestic bliss.

Still, we might like Jon and Mira as people, and their backstory feels cozy and credible. They met at Columbia University in New York when he was still a practicing Orthodox Jew and started dating a couple of years later, after he had wandered away from his religion. Now he teaches philosophy at Tufts in the Boston suburb of Medford, while she's a well-remunerated tech company vice president.

She's busy and travels a lot, so he's the primary caretaker of their daughter. She's the primary breadwinner, which affords them a well-appointed suburban existence in a rambling but lived-in house. They drink a lot of wine and seem easy with each other, though when the camera finds either of them alone, troubling issues arise.

Mira learns she's pregnant at the very outset of the show, but it's a while before she tells Jonathan. At one point we catch a glimpse of Jonathan's laptop, and he seems to have been browsing a porn or adult dating site.

Still, they seem healthier than their friends Peter (Corey Stoll) and Kate (Nicole Beharie) who have opened up their marriage in the wake of Peter's infidelity. But then, in the second episode, Mira stuns Jonathan with the revelation that she has been involved for eight months in an affair with a younger man she met through her work. She is in love with this man. She's leaving for Tel Aviv with him. Tomorrow.

She has to leave. Now.

Jonathan was aware of certain unspoken stressors and the toll that parenthood takes, but he had no idea of the depth of Mira's unhappiness. He doesn't really believe her. The night is long, but they cannot talk it out. In the morning, Mira begins to pack in a frenzy, throwing clothes into a rolling bag as he pleads and cajoles. Stay, just for a little while, for a couple of weeks, just to make sure that what you're acting on is real, he tells her. She won't. She can't.

She can't close the bag. It's defeating her.

He takes the bag and begins to take the garments off their hangers to fold them gently and place them in the bag. It's like a sacrament. It is his way of maintaining control over what he can control. He cannot make her love him again in the way she used to, but he can pack a damn suitcase.

Isaac and Chastain played a married couple before, a very different one, in J.C. Chandor's 2015 crime drama "A Most Violent Year." Apparently they have been friends since they were classmates together at Juilliard. On the red carpet at the recent Venice Film Festival, where this "Scenes From a Marriage" premiered, they had a sexy viral moment when Isaac kissed the inside of Chastain's arm.

It was acting, Chastain said.

Maybe, but Isaac as Jonathan packing that suitcase is acting. My eyes started to sting. I guess I was sweating pretty good.

Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) star in Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”
Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) star in Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”

In Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage," it is the husband Johan (Erland Josephson) who leaves the wife Marianne (Liv Ullmann) for a younger woman, named Paula, who is never seen.

In the HBO series, the interloper is an Israeli named Poli who vaguely "runs a startup" that Mira's company is involved with. We haven't seen Poli yet, and I'm betting we don't.

Bergman based a lot of "Scenes From a Marriage" on his own life, specifically his breakup with Ullmann, who was his romantic partner for five years and his muse for more than 40 years. They never married but had a daughter together, and Ullmann appeared in 12 of his films, including 2003's "Saraband," Bergman's final film and a sequel to "Scenes From a Marriage."

("Saraband" was also originally broadcast on Swedish television, but this time the two-hour theatrical release added 13 minutes to the TV version.)

The Norwegian Ullmann and the Swedish Bergman met and fell in love when she was 25 and he was 46 and each was married to someone else. The first film they made together was 1966's "Persona," an experimental masterpiece that essentially repaired Bergman's critical reputation and marked a shift in his interest from symbol-laden metaphysical films like "The Seventh Seal" (1957) toward a more naturalistic investigation of human psychology.

Ullmann starred in "Persona" as Elisabet, an actress who suddenly stops speaking and moving and is placed under the care of a nurse named Alma, played by Bibi Andersson who, in Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" plays Marianna's friend Katarina, an analog to Kate in the HBO version.

Andersson introduced Ullmann to Bergman in 1964, and Ullmann wrote in her autobiography that Bergman immediately asked her to work with him. In 2017, Andersson, speaking before a screening of "Persona" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, revealed that she'd been having an affair with Bergman, and that he turned his attention to Ullmann during the shooting of "Persona."

"Liv and I had worked together before and we were very close," she said. "He saw our friendship, and he wanted to get ... inside of it. Involved."

By the time Bergman, twice divorced, started working on "Scenes From a Marriage," his romantic relationship with Ullmann had ended, though obviously they remained close. He also drew on the marriage between his parents, the Lutheran minister Erik Bergman and Erik's second cousin Karin Akerblom. (The Bergman-produced 1992 film "The Best Intentions" draws heavily on the complex and sometimes violent relationship between Erik and Karin.) Bergman had a lot of kindling material for his bonfire.

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, circa 1966 (Courtesy of Janus Films)
Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, circa 1966 (Courtesy of Janus Films)

In 2013, Indian-born Dheeraj Akolkar made a worshipful documentary about Bergman and Ullmann's relationship called "Liv and Ingmar: Painfully Connected." Ullmann cooperated with the making of the film, which artfully used clips from his films to illustrate the ways in which the director drew from his own experience.

Of their first summer together in Bergman's house on the small Swedish island of Faro, Ullmann remembers: "It was as if I were living in soft walls of sunlight, desire and happiness. No summer has ever been like that."

She also remembers that he said she was like "his Stradivarius," a wondrous instrument through which he could make his art.

But later, that house "became a prison," and she found herself "confronted with his jealousy," which was "violent and without boundaries." He only allowed her to leave his side one day a week. When she would return home, she'd find him waiting for her, watching at the door.

He punished her during the making of their films together, forcing her uncomfortably close to flames and leaving her exposed in an open boat on a freezing day during the filming of 1968's "Shame."

She came to realize the genius was a small man, emotionally insecure, pathetic in his rages.

When they broke up it was a tabloid feeding frenzy. But somehow, they managed to keep working together — to remain friends.

■ ■ ■

Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" is most overtly the story of a crumbling marriage, but also a love story. Johan and Marianne never stop loving each other; they just uncouple and move on in what is ultimately a very dignified and adult manner.

In one respect it's not hard to see why some people held it responsible for a rising divorce rate in Sweden, though there were a lot of other factors that might have contributed to that in 1973.

Bergman held the position that it was a feminist film all about Marianne's "liberation," but that seems a rather simplistic reading of the work. It is an unsentimental exploration for the casual intimacy of coupledom that finds much of its drama in moments that other films and filmmakers might find of scant interest.

And it was profoundly influential, directly inspiring most of Woody Allen's dramatic oeuvre, Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy, and Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story." It has also obviously had an influence on Levi's work — one of the shows he produced for Israeli TV was an anthology series called "Short Stories About Love."

In some ways, Levi's "Scenes" tracks the Bergman original so closely that it might be more usefully regarded as a remake than a homage — the stories rhyme, with the romantic misery of the supporting couple Peter and Kate playing against the strivings of Mira and Jonathan.

But then, there are countless productions of "Macbeth," and no one questions why we need another version of Shakespeare. (Well, almost no one does — I have heard sighs and whispers about the imminent arrival of Joel Coen's "The Tragedy of Macbeth," but early reviews have lauded its austere black-and-white aesthetic and the performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.)

HBO's "Scenes From a Marriage" will no doubt be watched by an audience largely unfamiliar with Bergman's original, and if it existed only to provide Chastain and Isaac a chance to display their acting chops it would still be a worthwhile endeavor.

In the nearly 50 years since Bergman questioned the viability of monogamous marriage in a wised-up modern world, surprisingly little has changed. People still seek out "the one," idealizing lasting matedness even as they swipe left to hook up.



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