Review: In ‘Scenes From a Marriage,’ a Couple Unhappy in the Same Way

If the close to way forward for TV is infinite reinterpretations and remakes of mental property — extra superheroes, extra “Star Wars,” a new “Fantasy Island,” a new “Wonder Years” —maybe it was inevitable that the development would flip to one among the 20th century’s enduring superbrands: Ingmar Bergman.

“Scenes From a Marriage,” Bergman’s six-part 1973 collection for Swedish tv (later edited into a movie), was a gradual, refined work that made a huge noise. Following a couple (Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s former romantic companion) by the collapse of their marriage and past, “Scenes” impressed sufficient real-life soul looking out that it was even credited with a rise in the Swedish divorce fee.

Like many a dissolved marriage, it additionally left behind descendants. Most immediately, there are the talky love-dissection movies of Woody Allen, Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach, amongst others. More diffusely, you possibly can see traces of it in TV collection that delve into relationships and psychology, from “thirtysomething” to the current “Master of None” season, “Moments in Love.”

Hagai Levi has been producing works in that vein for years, together with the Israeli “BeTipul” and its Americanization, “In Treatment,” in addition to Showtime’s “The Affair,” which utilized Bergmanian pathos to a crime thriller. Now the creative little one is returning to the primal “Scenes.” Levi’s five-episode replace of the collection, which begins Sunday on HBO, is a soulful research of intimacy that reminds us of the energy of the authentic however with out fairly making the case for an replace.

Bourgeois Sweden is changed right here by a bourgeois Boston-area neighborhood; Josephson and Ullmann by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac; and the stage-like rawness of Bergman’s manufacturing by the muted gentle and design-catalog aesthetic of upper-middle-class cable drama.

Set dressing apart, Levi’s main change is roughly to swap the gender roles of the leads. Mira (Chastain), a company product supervisor, is the higher-paid half of the couple, rising in her profession and nursing doubts about the marriage. Jonathan (Isaac) is content material taking a larger function in elevating their daughter whereas working principally from dwelling as an educational.

As in the authentic, the new “Scenes” introduces the couple by having them interviewed, this time by a researcher doing a research on monogamous relationships. In Bergman’s model, the husband holds forth smugly whereas Ullmann’s character is reticent.

This time the man does a lot of the speaking once more — some issues by no means change! — however the dynamic is completely different. Jonathan appears to be working to persuade not simply the interviewer but additionally himself that he’s enlightened and self-aware, that he values their marriage whereas having the proper mental skepticism of matrimony, that their partnership is, in the researcher’s phrases, a “success.” Mira’s quiet is much less a signal of a energy relationship than a sign that she has been reaching completely different conclusions.

That query of “success,” a bizarre but familiarly meritocratic option to speak about love and intercourse, hangs over the collection. Is success a secure cooperative staff effort, two good careers, concerned parenting and home-renovation plans?

For that matter, is a marriage that ends essentially a failure? Does a marriage ever actually finish — is marriage, in the bigger sense, a state of being that continues even for those who cut up up? Is it one thing that exists between two characters, or is it a third character, with a lifetime of its personal? Or is it the solely character, binding two folks into one advanced organism even once they’re aside?

Bergman’s collection probed these questions, and so does Levi’s, in a lot the identical manner and over lots of the identical story beats, with talent if not wild originality.

The 5 episodes should not truly titled “Denial,” “Anger,” “Bargaining,” “Depression” and “Acceptance,” however they cowl the levels of marital grief in a lot that manner. Levi’s scripts (two co-written with Amy Herzog) borrow strains from Bergman’s authentic, however the voice is distinct. The installments are play-like, usually involving a handful of scenes that cowl a quick span of time; the motion comes in the conversations, which shift naturally from banality to flirtation to viciousness to détente.

Levi is a deft emotional choreographer, and Chastain and Isaac are the dancers you need executing the steps. Jonathan is a kind Isaac performs properly, a reflective mental with a “need for moral superiority” who holds a lot of resentment and familial-religious angst behind that lush beard. Chastain’s Mira is each extra expressive and extra managed; she has much less guilt about wanting extra from life and love, however she’s extra unstable than she lets the world see.

When they battle, they battle explosively; one confrontation turns uncomfortably bodily. Their muscle-memory sexual attraction is wholly plausible. (I remind you: They are performed by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.) Their connection comes by in tiny moments, as when Jonathan packs a suitcase for Mira, concurrently an act of affection and aggression.

It’s all properly noticed and exquisitely acted, but this “Scenes” appears to have defied Tolstoy by discovering an sad household that’s sad in a very acquainted manner. The gender swap might say one thing about husbands and wives redefining their roles, however TV has had a half century of heterosexual marriage tales since Bergman to work that one out.

Another small distinction is that Jonathan and Mira’s daughter, Ava (Lily Jane), is a higher presence — each on-screen and in dialog — than the kids in the authentic. This might replicate the extra hands-on model of this class of American mother and father in contrast with the free-range Swedes of the ’70s, however it additionally makes her a form of externalization of the marriage, connecting the couple in one being.

Even for those who haven’t seen the authentic collection (streaming on the Criterion Channel), none of those dynamics will appear very novel. And you probably have, this “Scenes” feels much less like a reimagining than like a intellectual stage revival — film stars spending a few weeks doing Ibsen at a summer time theater fest.

That feeling is barely heightened by a distracting framing gadget, which breaks the fourth wall by exhibiting us Chastain and Isaac, as Chastain and Isaac, on set in the midst of a Covid-era manufacturing, surrounded by lights and mask-wearing crew. I’m certain there’s some thought-through motive that may sound good on the web page, however in observe it’s a bucket of chilly water on a story whose goal is body-temperature intimacy.

Of course, “Look at these talented stars in this classy production” has been a profitable draw earlier than. Whether it’s sufficient for you could decide whether or not you name it a wrap earlier than “Scenes From a Marriage” does.