With Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, I figured it was probably 50/50 whether or not HBO’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1974 [theatrical version]; streaming on HBO or the Criterion Channel) would be any good (okay, maybe 60/40 on the positive side). After the first episode of the 2021 version, I see I underestimated how impressive their acting would be. While Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson brought a sort of jaded, Scandinavian, post-Sexual-Revolution, ’70s carelessness to the roles of Marianne and Johan, what I felt most was the conflict between external pressures and internal desires or happiness. There are external family pressures on them to remain together, but there are also unnamed societal pressures that put Marianne on the defensive, because how can she withhold from Johan his happiness? This is just the way it goes sometimes. In other words, Marianne seems unable to express the ruinous effect Johan’s selfish actions will have on her and the children (who appear in only one scene, which is telling).
In the 2021 version, the awkward and uncomfortable introspection that begins the original remains (Liv Ullman is brilliant in that scene), but there is more of a natural connection and so an emotional warmth between Chastain’s Mira and Isaac’s Jonathan. The dinner party with an embittered couple (I could feel through the TV the dagger looks Bibi Andersson was shooting at her drunk husband) remains as well, and heightens the contrast between the two couples. The most significant and striking difference in the 2021 version is that it begins with Chastain actually arriving on the set and slipping into the role of her character. From the beginning the question is there: are we all only playing roles?
In the original, there was an emotional distance between Marianne and Johan, explained in part by the fact that they say to the television (?) interviewer that they were not originally attracted to each other and fell into a relationship seemingly by mere proximity or convenience. Later in the first episode of the remake, we find out that part of the discomfort between Mira and Jonathan is that she’s just found out she’s pregnant, but he doesn’t know.
And that leads to one of the most visually affecting, devastating scenes I have seen in anything recently. When Mira finally tells Jonathan that night, they have a halting, uncomfortable conversation about whether to “keep it” or not. They apparently decide to have the child, but the very next scene finds them in a medical setting, where Mira is being prescribed the two-pill abortion drug. I have physical, emotional, mental, and religious revulsion for abortion, but Chastain and Isaac are so incredible that we see both their own discomfort and their anemic attempts to cover that discomfort with forced smiles and self-justifications.
As in the original, where modern, secularized adults are not supposed to think that divorce is any big deal, we see that Mira and Jonathan are clearly not supposed to have any objections to abortion, especially not of the moral variety. They tell themselves and each other that they’re doing the “right thing,” that it is “best,” that it is up to Mira and Jonathan will support her completely. But as Jonathan hears the Pepsi can drop from the machine (is this a birth metaphor?), he looks toward the room and he is unable to prevent the tears. He tells Mira, “I don’t know why I’m feeling like this.” Neither of them can put words to their inner disquiet.
And then the scene: while Mira is sitting on the exam table, the flimsy sheet and hospital gown are arranged on her so that they look unavoidably like a wedding gown. After she takes the first pill and tells Jonathan she needs some time alone, she slowly lowers herself back on the table, pulls the sheet above her head and sobs. At this point, the sheet is no longer a wedding gown; it has been transformed into a funeral shroud. Though only the first episode has been released, I fully expect that the moment at which their child dies is the exact moment their marriage dies. The wedding has become a funeral.
One of the strengths of Bergman’s film (itself originally a television miniseries), and at least the first episode of this version, is that it shows how stunted the characters are; authentic communication between these people, even after ten years of marriage, is nearly impossible. They fight to release the words, but they can never quite say what they actually mean or feel. If they somehow manage to do so, it is misunderstood by the other person.
Bergman’s conclusion comes through clearly: even after the divorce, other lovers, fights, and emotional, verbal, and physical violence, Marianne and Johan are tied to each other by a bond that they did not create and are unable to break, despite all their attempts to do so. Throughout, we see both of them in profile, as if they were half people, only complete with each other. It will be interesting to see what else Amy Herzog and Hagai Levy (writers), director Levy, Chastain and Isaac can draw out of these characters, and what lessons they learn—whether they come to reckon with the death they have introduced into their lives.