Scenes from a Marriage Episode 1, “Innocence and Panic”

In this image from Scenes from a Marriage, Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) wraps his arms around Mira (Jessica Chastain) in bed.
Photograph by Jojo Whilden/HBO

The following contains spoilers for Scenes from a Marriage Episode 1, “Innocence and Panic”

From the very first moments of its initial episode, writer-director Hagai Levi’s modernized update of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1973 television series Scenes from a Marriage signals a willingness to take risks. The remake—or as Levi calls it, “adaptation,”—opens with a behind-the-scenes shot of the actor Jessica Chastain leaving her dressing room, walking through the labyrinth of the soundstage, entering the set, and assuming her position and character as the married tech executive Mira in a bit of metatextual play foreign to the straightforward, almost documentary approach of Bergman’s original.

The first episode of Bergman’s series, also titled “Innocence and Panic,” consisted of exactly four separate scenes—an interview, a dinner, a conversation, and an appointment—just as does Levi’s. The 1973 series, starring longtime Bergman collaborators Liv Ullmann, with whom Bergman was just ending a five-year relationship, and Erland Josephson as the married couple Marianne and Johan, was the Swedish auteur’s first foray into television and a cultural phenomenon upon its broadcast, later exported in a slightly truncated international theatrical release. More so than perhaps any other it has long stood as the singular work which undertook to understand the trials and undulations of modern marriage, doing so with Bergman’s signature blunt language and character nuance.

In this image from Scenes from a Marriage, the characters Jonathan and Mira are seated on a couch looking at their interviewer (Sunita Mani).
Mira and Jonathan’s interview with a graduate student (Sunita Mani) echoes and updates Bergman’s original. Photograph by Jojo Whilden/HBO.

To adapt Bergman is a bold, nearly unprecedented move, and so Levi’s initial approach seems intended to establish his own series as something distinct from the original. Executive produced by Chastain and her co-star Oscar Isaac, her former Juilliard classmate and longtime friend, the five-episode series purports to retell Bergman, though in a contemporary American milieu. As Chastain assumes Mira’s character, she exchanges places with her stand-in and her own wedding ring for the character’s. Seated on the toilet, she glances about uncomfortably before pulling out her phone, sending a text, and exiting downstairs for a scheduled interview with a graduate student (Sunita Mani). Her actions may seem innocuous, and there is no analogue in Bergman’s original, which opened cold with the interview itself, but they are nonetheless fraught with meaning that will unfold a little later.

As Mira joins her husband Jonathan (Isaac) for the interview, Levi’s updates to Bergman continue, establishing a more contemporary idiom. The graduate student is working in gender studies, a field that had yet to exist in the early 1970s, and she begins by establishing first the couple’s preferred pronouns, even as her study takes as its subject cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous marriages. The amorphous nature of the questions (not to mention the study itself) seems to unsettle Mira, who is far less comfortable in the situation than her husband, a philosophy professor at Tufts who is eager to opine on the ways he perceives the institution of marriage to have changed: “It’s a project, a thing that you work on […] a multi-billion-dollar industry,” he laments.

In this image from Scenes from a Marriage, the characters Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) are depicted seated in a living room, both looking at an unseen interviewer to their left.
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac take on the roles first played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Ingmar Bergman’s original 1972 series. Photograph by Jojo Whilden/HBO

Bergman’s original had the couple sitting for a magazine profile on love and the two marrieds similarly opposite in their responses. One clever little homage to Bergman is that Levi’s Mira supposedly once dated a singer in “Saraband”—the title of his final 2003 film, the sequel to Scenes that reunited Josephson and Ullman. The interviewer’s questions probe a bit to examine the two’s swapped primary roles as breadwinner (Mira) and caregiver (Jonathan), and the camera lets us see Mira tune out Jonathan’s pedantry as she furtively checks the phone she tucks under her leg. After the couple’s next social engagement, we’ll know exactly why.

Like Liv Ullmann in Bergman’s version, Chastain here is expert at signaling her distress nonverbally, with small shifts in posture, plucks at her cuticles, pulls of her hair, and curls of her lip. Her striped yellow blouse and pale skin practically fade into the warm palette of the couple’s cozy décor, suggesting she has become inseparable from her domestic identity. Mira’s far less comfortable with the questioning than Jonathan, palpably bristling in particular when she is asked about their attitudes toward monogamy: “To what extent do you see yourselves committed to each other exclusively? Sexually?”

That question becomes fodder for amusement in the next scene, but its one that I suspect (knowing my Bergman) will play out over the remainder of the series. Where Mira and Jonathan’s relationship is at the center of the first scene’s interview, the second scene focuses more on their friends Kate (Nicole Beharie) and Peter (Corey Stoll), a couple in a mutually polyamorous relationship. That couple’s explicit, explosive bickering contrasts loudly with Mira and Jonathan’s quieter, subdued discontent: it’s only a few minutes before a healthy “F*ck you” is uttered between them. Their situation—interracial, openly polyamorous, and evolving—is one Peter touts as of many “new models” for relationships beyond Mira and Jonathan’s more traditional arrangement. But perhaps the larger fault line is the degree to which their private disagreements should be made public: Kate wants to divulge all, Peter to keep things quiet.

In this image from Scenes from a marriage, the characters Mira and Jonathan are seated at a dinner table with Kate (Nicole Beharie) and Peter (Corey Stoll).
As in Bergman’s original, a social dinner with friends Kate (left, Nicole Beharie) and Peter (Corey Stoll) quickly turns dark. Photograph by Jojo Whilden/HBO.

This scene, just as it had been in Bergman’s, is discomforting. The situation—with friends in an intense argument—is always unsettling, and Levi’s camera, unlike Bergman’s, swirls and stalks the characters as they accuse, object, and deny. After the two women adjourn, Kate, whose feelings of rejection by another lover are at the core of the argument, surprisingly kisses Mira, long enough to arouse a feeling in her and one she quickly rejects. Bergman had had the Peter character offer Ullmann’s Marianne a chaste peck, so it’s a clever turn to see Levi update the moment as a sensual bisexual kiss, brief but intense. After the two return, Jonathan is recalling his upbringing, having been trained to repress his feelings and desires. His words seem to comment directly on Mira’s experience.

Once alone together, Mira and Jonathan settle into a montage of domestic nighttime ritual sundries—flossing, brushing, combing, washing—before their bedtime conversation and the episode’s major reveal. In bed with his book in a pose that directly recalls Erland Josephson in Bergman’s original, Jonathan, sensing something amiss, asks Mira, “What is it?” That Levi opened the episode with Mira on the toilet, looking perplexed and texting, was entirely intentional: she was confirming with her doctor the results of a pregnancy test, and those texts during the interview confirmed: she’s pregnant.

Jonathan is supportive if not necessarily enthusiastic, and the two seem to come to an agreement to keep the child despite the difficulties raising it will entail. Jonathan’s deference to Mira’s concerns allows her just enough room to equivocate. The scene recalls Bergman’s down to the spartan background and simple camerawork. But somewhere along the way, a decision is reached, and the following scene, as in Bergman, brings the two to Mira’s doctor’s office.

There, Mira is resolute, her decision reached, clarity achieved. Jonathan is anxious, his jitters expressing themselves in an awkward desire to please and a sudden urge for a Diet Coke. The doctor (Tovah Feldshuh) explains the procedure and Mira follows directions. In the hallway, in a nice touch, Jonathan finds the vending machine to pop out its product willingly and without hesitance. Were pregnancy and delivery so simple! Back in the examination room, Levi opts for a handheld camera, extreme close-ups, and natural lighting, first charting Jonathan’s anxiety—he is obviously consternated but will not say so—before turning more to Mira.

Like in Bergman, so much meaning and impact is less in the scripted lines than in the actors’ performances. Here Isaac is a bundle of nerves, adjusting his glasses, pulling his beard, feverishly scouting the room for a cup for the Diet Coke (and finding, not a little humorously, only a specimen jar). His character’s behavior isn’t too far from that of a nervously expectant father fumbling about a delivery room. But the decision that is made here is Mira’s: with Jonathan she is confident and at ease, following her doctor’s instructions with a calm serenity.

To abort a pregnancy, though, is intensely personal and pressing for any woman. When Mira asks to be alone, only then does she allow herself to feel the weight of her decision. Her lip quivers, she lays back amidst the rustle of her paper gown, and sobs, pulling the sheets over her head, just as Ullman’s Marianne had done at the end of Bergman’s first episode 48 years ago. The scene is no less compelling for taking place in an historical moment where the longstanding precedent of Roe v. Wade is under unprecedented assault by new laws in Texas that not only promise to end legal abortion after six weeks but reward bounty hunters for identifying anyone who does so.

The first episode of Levi’s adaptation is surely a work of contemporary art that will resonate with anyone in a long-term relationship. But it also reminds of how ahead of his time Bergman was in 1973. Here was the foremost auteur of international cinema, a director who had made his mark with films as diverse as Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Shame, and Persona, adopting what in retrospect now seems an especially audacious direction. Bergman was never risk-averse: to depict a troubled marriage of co-equals, an unplanned pregnancy and an elective abortion, alongside a polyamorous couple (if not named so then)—and all of this on primetime broadcast network television!

Even more than his radical experimentalism, Bergman with Scenes from a Marriage conveyed an extraordinary trust in his actors and a willingness to evolve with the times and the medium—the cinema’s premier auteur taking to the newer medium of television at the apex of his prowess and fame. Above all, he regarded his characters with a remarkable insight and empathy. Levi’s new update similarly takes the risk of adapting Bergman to the screen in a way no other director has to date and, fortunately for us, gives Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac every freedom to convey their characters’ nuances with all the technique, camaraderie, and intimacy their friendship and experience allows.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and a writer-reviewer at Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *