One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 51
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Ingmar Bergman’s landmark 1973 television miniseries Scenes from a Marriage made quite the impression upon its premiere nearly 50 years ago. A five-hour, six-part TV production that explored the disintegration of a marriage and its aftermath over a ten-year period, it chronicled its subject with an intimacy, intelligence and raw power that had never been seen to such effect on the small screen. That it was written and directed by one of the international cinema's premiere filmmakers for television—at a time when his reputation was in need of an artistic boost and the Bergmans of the world didn't work in television—was even more remarkable.
As Scenes from a Marriage brings a whole lot of history and respect and a helluva reputation with it, the idea of remaking it could be looked at as ambitious and exciting, just as easily as it could be derided as risky and unnecessary. This consideration, of course, can be said about any remake, or “re-imagining,” as they like to slot it in Hollywood.
But that artistically nervy step has been taken. The first chapter of HBO’s adaptation of Bergman’s series (and subsequent film version) debuted on the cable giant and its sister streaming platform HBO Max on September 12. The 2021 edition of Scenes follows the lives of Mira and Jonathan, a married couple living in a Boston suburb, who are portrayed by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. Presented as a five-part limited series, it is scheduled to run on consecutive Sunday nights through late April. This time around, the writer-director is Hagai Levi, whose previous projects include HBO’s In Treatment and Showtime’s The Affair, which certainly establishes his credibility in the multi-part romantic drama TV series arena.
But can he out Bergman Bergman?
The original Scenes from a Marriage stars Bergman mainstays Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson as an affluent and seemingly content Stockholm couple, Marianne, a lawyer, and Johan, an academic. But that’s only the entry point in the early goings-on of the series (and considerably shorter theatrical film version) as things don’t ever look much rosier for the two as a couple as the extended story unfolds.
Bergman penned the teleplay for Scenes over several months, drawing on his own experiences, including his then-rocky relationship with leading lady Ullmann and two of his previously unhappy marriages. It was made on a relatively small budget—reportedly a third of the cost of his previous film, the 1972 costume drama Cries and Whispers—and shot with up-and-close-and-personal intimacy by Bergman’s peerless cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
Though he was still considered a master abroad, by the early Seventies, Bergman had fallen a bit out of favor in Sweden. There was a rising feeling among the cinematic cognoscenti, particularly the younger generation, that Bergman was increasingly out of touch with modern society. A particular sore point was his ongoing interest in the metaphysical and religious themes that defined such classic works as The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963), among many.
The critical and commercial pendulum swung back in Bergman’s direction when the first installment of the contemporary and very intimate Scenes of a Marriage premiered on Swedish television in April, 1973, with five more installments broadcast weekly through the middle of May. The love and anger and joy and turmoil that percolate over the years of a marriage were all on display in the impeccably acted, precisely written, lengthy chronicle. It’s not hard to imagine that viewers whose marriages weren’t destined for dissolution must have raised their eyebrows when watching the union between thoroughbreds Ullmann and Josephson slowly unravel.
“On Wednesday nights the streets were empty because everyone was at home watching Scenes from a Marriage," wrote Swedish-born Scandinavian cinema scholar Birgitta Steen of Scenes TV rollout in 1973 and Bergman’s resurgence. Bergman was the master, the icon. He was so important he was practically sanctified."
An instant sensation in its native country and then across the continent, Scenes may have had an even more-lasting effect: it reportedly led to higher divorce rates throughout Europe, with Swedish divorces allegedly doubling one year after it premiered. If that’s true, perhaps the feeling among inward-looking couples was, “If it’s good enough for Liv and Erland…”
A much-truncated, 167-minute theatrical version of the miniseries was released in the U.S. in September, 1974. (In New York City, it opened at the Cinema I on the Upper East Side, with the complete series being aired by PBS a few years later in the spring of 1977.) In addition being edited down from its six original 50-minute installments, the series was blown up from a 16mm film negative to a more theater-friendly 35mm. This gave Nykvist’s tight close-ups a far grainier and textured appearance that it had on television. The New York Times’s Vincent Canby described that veneer as “a kind of pointillist effect” in his review. On the big screen, its appearance was akin to that of old home movies, adding what feels like even more adjacence to our fly-on-the-wall observations of the couple’s most personal moments.
While there’s no evidence that Scenes undermined the institution of marriage in America, it certainly made its mark on homegrown U.S. cinema and television. Renowned Bergman-worshipper Woody Allen took a cue from Scenes for a handful of his films, including Annie Hall (1977), Another Woman (1988) and particularly Husbands and Wives (1988). Then there’s Paul Mazursky’s 1991 serio-comic Scenes from a Mall, costarring Woody and Bette Midler, which followed the crumbling union of a couple as they traversed the Beverly Center. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013) took Bergman's one-on-one as a prime inspiration while, more recently, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019) clearly used Scenes as a jumping-off point.
Even TV’s beloved nighttime soap Dallas can be traced to Scenes. Its creator David Jacobs once offered that his Seventies staple was initially based on Bergman’s series. “Yeah, I had high aspirations,” Jacobs admitted.
Based on its premiere episode, the new Scenes from a Marriage broadly parallels the original series. The primary difference, at least at this point, is that Mira, the business executive wife played by Jessica Chastain, is the primary bread winner and seemingly unsure marital partner, while Isaac’s Jonathan, still an academic, is a satisfied stay-at-home dad. It’s a gender swap that clearly reflects that the perceptions of marriage and its responsibilities have radically changed in the nearly half-century since the original.
The performances by Chastain and Isaac in the first installment are first-rate and carefully calibrated, while writer/director Hagai Levi’s methods include lots of long takes, close-ups and static tableaus. It’s a style that definitely recalls many of the strengths of Bergman’s series, There are still four more installments on tap, so there may very well be some radical departures from Bergman's vision. The next several weeks will tell. So tune in next month to see how it all wraps up—and check the divorce filings in a year to find out just how much the audience has taken it to heart.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.