HBO's 'Scenes From a Marriage' doesn't work. Bergman's original shows what's missing

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Much of contemporary screen drama seems designed not to enthrall but to stun viewers into submission before they turn their fickle attention elsewhere.

A powerful corrective to this mode of hyperactive storytelling is the work of Ingmar Bergman. The Swedish filmmaker and theater director never lost faith in the gripping nature of the human drama.

No matter the elements of the story, his focus remained on inner realty. Ambivalence, bad faith, suppressed rage, inexplicable terror — in combination or alone — were sufficient to drive a Bergman plot. As an auteur, he was drawn to emotional extremity. He found what he needed not only in violent fables but also in everyday life.

“Scenes From a Marriage,” Bergman’s six-part 1973 television drama starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, had a seismic impact when it first aired in Sweden. Its subsequent release in movie theaters in a truncated version (which is how “Scenes” was introduced to audiences in the U.S.) extended the tremors beyond Scandinavia.

The story of a married couple’s disintegration landed at a time of rising consciousness about the political nature of domestic relationships. Without directly engaging the burning feminist debates of the day, Bergman still managed to encapsulate the cultural shifts that were transforming society.

HBO’s remake of “Scenes From a Marriage,” a five-part limited series starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, awakened hope that the Bergman aesthetic might live again. But watching the new version alongside the original only reveals what's missing.

Israeli writer and director Hagai Levi strives to bring the material up to date. Gender roles no longer reflect a strict patriarchal scheme: Isaac's Jonathan, a philosophy professor, assumes the lion’s share of childrearing duties; Chastain's Mira, an ambitious tech executive, is the one whose affair precipitates the collapse of the marriage.

Domestically focused, Jonathan is assigned many of the submissive qualities of Ullmann’s Marianne. Mira shares some of the selfishness of Josephson’s Johan. When she falls in love with an Israeli colleague, she becomes, much like Johan, blind to everything but her new passion. Devastated by this betrayal, Jonathan, as meekly conciliatory as Marianne, helps her pack her suitcase.

For “Scenes From a Marriage” to work the union itself must be credible, and it's exceedingly difficult to believe in Jonathan and Mira as anything but two actors, old friends from Juilliard, reunited for a project they are unable to lift off the ground. This is an insuperable problem, and I spent the entire series trying to understand how things went so wrong.

I watched the first two HBO episodes before pulling out my Criterion Collection edition that includes the television version of Bergman's “Scenes.” Alternating between them, I eagerly awaited the one I had seen several times before and began dreading the other, which I could hardly imagine wanting to see a second time.

Isaac, a brilliant Hamlet in New York, is an actor who rarely makes a false move. He grounds Jonathan as far as he can, though whole aspects of the character (his work as a philosophy professor, his Orthodox Jewish background) are only perfunctorily sketched.

Chastain, lauded for her work in "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Help," is less successful in making sense of Mira. The character isn’t meant to be psychologically integrated, but she comes off as a patchwork of qualities that never add up to a recognizable human being.

How these two became a couple is a mystery no amount of backstory can adequately illuminate.

Isaac and Chastain are listed as executive producers, along with a fleet of other names, including noted playwright Amy Herzog (“4000 Miles,” “Mary Jane,” ) who co-wrote the first and last episodes with Levi. Unsettled by Chastain’s performance and conscious of the way both leads italicize moments of their story arcs, I became nostalgic for the days when actors like Ullmann and Josephson, unburdened by producing baggage, could wholly subsume themselves in their characters.

But the fault, I came to see, lies principally with Levi. The mix-and-match approach of his adaptation, which borrows freely from the original while splicing in his own personal preoccupations, contrives a dramatic reality that comes not from life, as Bergman’s did, but from a premium cable version of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.

The actors are asked to breathe life into incoherent fabrications — no wonder they fail. The way they're claustrophobically observed by the camera only throws into relief the bogus nature of this documentary-style soap opera.

Each episode starts with the actors getting into place as a masked crew observes on-set COVID-19 protocols. This meta gesture is a bit of a head-scratcher, but I came to see it as an acknowledgment of the artificiality of the project and a reminder that the pandemic made it tough on everyone. The final episode finds lyrical use for the behind-the-scenes frame, but the general effect is confusing and unearned.

Little erroneous details kept pulling me out of the story. Neither Jonathan's nor Mira's work life is made credible. (Jonathan doesn't seem to have anything to do all day except contemplate the failure of his marriage and mull his relationship to Judaism.) When Mira returns after a period of separation to deal with child care arrangements, she shows up looking more like a Hollywood actress ready for the Oscar nominees luncheon than a brainy and manipulative tech boss.

In Bergman's "Scenes," the disconnect between what characters say and what they do reflects not only their profound ambivalence but also their confounded existential state. Marianne and Johan don’t understand themselves, never mind each other. The point is social, psychological and metaphysical.

At the start, an interviewer is doing a profile of Johan and Marianne's marriage for a glossy magazine. The house is in perfect order, except the bedroom, which the journalist sees but ignores. The mess will stay hidden from readers but not from Bergman, who wants to explore the chaos under the photogenic surface.

Levi, who created "BeTipul," the Israeli series that gave rise to HBO’s “In Treatment,” begins with a doctoral student doing research into how "evolving gender norms affect monogamous marriages." Mira clearly isn't comfortable with this line of questioning, but Levi also doesn't seem to want to deal with the larger implications of his story.

The ambivalence of marriage is preserved in all its volatile disorder, but the social conditions, which Bergman patiently anatomizes in his version, are left vague. Levi's focus is on the private drama, but a private drama that exists in a vacuum — the vacuum of bad drama.

In Bergman, another couple's turbulent marriage sheds glaring light on the sexual and economic compromises that Johan and Marianne would prefer not to think about. In Levi, another couple's sputtering open marriage leads to nothing but a random lesbian flirtation (courtesy of a wasted Nicole Beharie) that neither Mira nor the viewer knows how to respond to.

The exchange between Marianne and her mother in the final episode of Bergman's "Scenes" speaks volumes about the cost of socialization, the sacrifice of a potential authentic self for the sake of a respectable status quo. Levi, burning away context, places Jonathan and his dour, reticent, newly widowed mother (Tovah Feldshuh) in a car for a conversation that merely extends the series' solipsism.

Before deigning to unveil his characters' undeveloped souls, Bergman shows us the variety of masks they have been taught to adopt. He earns his glimpses into the chasms of their identities through the slow removal of layers of pretense. Levi's hollow characters would instantly shrivel if subjected to this level of sociological scrutiny.

Not everything works in the original. Marianne, a divorce lawyer, conducts herself more like a therapist with a client who seems like an older version of herself. And it's surprising that someone who makes her living sorting out broken marriages would be so blindsided by her husband's infidelity or that she would lovingly pack his suitcase so that he can frolic in Paris with his younger lover. (In “The Magic Lantern,” Bergman writes that he drew this scene from his own marital experience.)

Marianne's masochism becomes more explicit in the post-coital violence that erupts when she later visits Johan at work to get him to sign their divorce papers. She eventually confronts her self-punishing tendencies after her anger at her husband's sadistic narcissism drives her, like Nora in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House," to connect the dots between how she was raised and how she has carried herself as a married woman. Ullmann's radiant performance delicately tracks Marianne's growing self-awareness and her ironic acceptance of the limits of such insight.

Bergman moves his characters to extremes so that they are forced to drop their facades and discover what is and isn't there. It’s this quest for enlightenment, this desperate groping for belated scraps of self-knowledge, this longing for peace in a possibly meaningless void, that connects films as disparate as “The Seventh Seal,” with its legendary chess match between a medieval knight and the figure of Death, and “Wild Strawberries,” about an irascible old doctor reliving what had been buried along the way to eminence.

It’s a pity that HBO didn’t use this opportunity to reinvent “Scenes From a Marriage” from a female point of view. Levi plays with gender expectations, but his perspective is decidedly male. Unlike Bergman, he is unable to envision a female character with her own convincing interior logic. His sketchy hold on American culture — the series is set in a Boston that might as well be a suburban nowhere — only compounds the emptiness.

This remake will confirm a stereotype of Bergman as psychologically ponderous and dull. It's a reputation that derives more from those auteurs who have tried to pay him homage (Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach) than from the films themselves. (The theater, most notably the European auteur Ivo van Hove, who radically adapted "Scenes" for the stage, has done a better job of revitalizing interest in Bergman's art.)

Glowing with inextinguishable truths, Bergman's work needs no intermediaries. The best antidote to the new and deficient “Scenes From a Marriage” is the imperfectly brilliant old “Scenes From a Marriage.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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