The following contains spoilers for Scenes from a Marriage Episode 5, “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”
When last we saw marrieds Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) at the end of writer-director Hagai Levi’s Scenes from a Marriage remake Episode 4, “The Illiterates,” the two had reached what looked like an impassible, insurmountable end to their relationship. Following Mira’s abortion (in Epsiode 1), her later affair with Poli (Episode 2), and her failed reconciliation with Jonathan (Episode 3), the two seemed on the verge of reconnecting, but their night of sex (and Isaac’s internet-breaking full-frontal moment) later turned violent. That last episode concluded with their divorce papers signed and Jonathan finally leaving the house they shared.
But as Jonathan drove away, he kept his eyes on the rear-view mirror. There are more scenes to come from this marriage.
Such a conclusion might have made for one end to the couple’s frayed relationship—or even the series. After the violence that exploded at the end of their evening, the two may have been best off if they never reconnected. But that’s not how Ingmar Bergman concluded his 1973 teleseries, and given Levi’s narrative fidelity to the original, not his ending either. The series’ final episode, “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World,” finds Mira and Jonathan temporarily together once again, calmer, a bit wiser, both resigned to and appreciative of the love they shared.
In this episode as in the others, Levi follows Bergman’s story-beats essentially note-for-note, excepting of course for the major update to the series, the gender-swap initiated in Episode 2. Levi and Episode 5 co-writer Amy Herzog’s conclusion seems simply to echo Bergman more so than resolve the crises the two faced in prior episodes, though, and the finale’s last scene feels more of a paean to its own cast and crew than an earnest exploration of their characters.
Bergman’s final episode featured a coy Johan (Erland Josephson) teasing his colleague-cum-paramour Eva (Gunnell Lindblom) about an affair he’s having: it turns out to be his ex-wife Marianne (Liv Ullmann), and the two soon reconnect at their summer home. Both are now married to others. There Johan learns of Marianne’s extramarital affair early in their relationship, and the two share a quiet romantic reunion together, interrupted only by a nightmare of Marianne’s: “We were crossing a dangerous road […]. But my hands were missing,” she says. “All I had left were stumps. I’m sliding around in soft sand. I can’t get a hold of you. You’re up there on the road, and I can’t reach you.” Her nightmare seems to suggest a deathly fear of being alone.
Rewatching Bergman, I’m reminded of what made his series so affecting: the ability of his characters to speak, as we’ve seen in prior episodes, both self-deluding placations and profound truths. Acknowledging the lack of love in her current marriage, Marianne confesses: “Sometimes it grieves me that I’ve never loved anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been loved either.” Her confession prompts Johan to reassure her that he had and still does, in his “selfish way,” still love her. Their love is one that had never been easy, but also has never really abated.
Over the course of the series Bergman’s protagonists developed as human beings, albeit in different ways. Marianne took a number of small steps towards independence and became a more confident, expressive, and self-actualized person. Throughout this episode, Josephson’s Johan is newly empathetic, humble, and considerate, himself a changed man from the egotistical lothario of the first episodes. He, like Marianne, has evolved, if a little less so. As the two lay together, he speaks softly the lines of the episode’s title. An earlier episode, one Levi elided, showed him to be a poet, if not an especially talented one, but Johan’s words are evocative and moving, a fitting conclusion to the series:
Here I am, in the middle of the night, without much fanfare, in a dark house somewhere in the world, sitting with my arms around you, and your arms are around me.
It’s a simple, existentialist declaration, one that feels fully in character, of the moment they share, and witness to the love, flawed as it is, the two feel. It may not be permanent or simple, but it absolutely exists.
In his contemporized remake, Levi’s final episode employs a similar ending. Episode 5 is the first in his series NOT to open with a meta-textual behind-the-scenes prologue featuring the cast and crew setting up for the first scene. It’s also the first episode to take us anywhere other than the home where Mira and Jonathan lived together, and the change in setting feels like a breath of fresh air even in the cold of winter. Jonathan is with his mother (Tovah Feldshuh) at his father’s funeral, Mira on a lunch date with Poli (Michael Iloni). But both are eager to reconnect with each other.
Mira waits in her car primping for Jonathan to arrive, and he takes her to a surprise destination: their former house. In a clever turn, it’s now an Airbnb property, renovated and redesigned, and Jonathan has reserved it for their night together. As the two evaluate the updates—a newly decorated living room, a boys’ bedroom plagued with hockey-stink, a master suite left largely unchanged—Mira finds a place for their tryst in the renovated attic, a girl’s room redecorated with personal Polaroids and string lights. The set remains one of the real stars of the series, perfectly adaptable in multiple iterations for each stage of their relationship.
Along the way, we learn a bit more: Jonathan has a new child Ethan, with Jane, and he later acknowledges having had two affairs while married to her. [An earlier version of this article indicated incorrectly those affairs took place during his marriage to Mira.] He says he’ll “never love anyone” the way he loved Mira. In a line certain to have already floated through every viewer’s head but which never would have surfaced in Bergman, Mira bluntly sums up their relationship:
We’re both just so f*cked up.
The two make love up in the attic bedroom, their sex together contrasting directly with the rough-and-fast of the prior episode, the one Jonathan was quick to shower off and that led later to their doorway fight. It’s romantic, elegantly lit, with a gliding camera, modest cuts, and gentle caresses. Yes, for those fans of Isaac and Chastain’s light-up-the-Twitterverse red-carpet canoodle at Venice, Jonathan does pause and linger on Mira’s arm. (Chastain’s arms must be irresistibly attractive or something.) It’s an intimate, carefully coordinated scene, the first time we have seen the two married appear wholly in love, even if it’s long after their marriage is over.
With the two reconnected, if perhaps only for the night in their renovated-attic-turned-Airbnb-sex-den, Levi has brought Jonathan and Mira to a better, less vengeful, less acrimonious place, one where they can understand and appreciate each other more fully. Mira tells Jonathan, “You’ll always love me” (her character does not lack for confidence and borders at times on the egomaniacal). In a nod to Bergman, Mira speaks a fragmented version of Johan’s poetic line from the original: “In the middle of the night, without much fanfare, in a dark house somewhere in the world.”
Well, she is, indeed, as is he. In the most literal of ways, her words make for a lovely epitaph to the series.
Or do they?
Interestingly, they seem to surprise Jonathan just as they might any viewer. He quizzes her: “What’s that?” he asks. After all, Mira is no poet (remember, Johan was, though Levi skipped that episode). Her language tends to the blunt, not the evocative, and it was she who calmly pronounced their characters to be, just minutes earlier, “just so f*cked up.” Her reply to Jonathan’s question seems glib: “It’s from a movie.” Are we meant to assume Mira watches and can quote Ingmar Bergman? (If Bergman exists in Mira’s universe, does she realize she has become his Johan and Jonathan his Marianne?) She doesn’t seem the type, really, to have room for foreign arthouse cinema or, for that matter, much other than herself, her career, and her love life.
That line sounds good, I guess, if you don’t have to think about the original and don’t fuss too much about whether Mira is the type given to postcoital film quoting. Even if you remove Bergman from the equation wholly, the line just doesn’t seem to come from Mira’s character, as we have seen her develop (or not develop) over five episodes, at all.
Levi has saved his last little bit of metatextual flourish for the finale. Recall that each prior episode began with the actors settling into their roles and sets; now, Levi inverts the conceit, showing us what happens after the final cut. Personal assistants bring Chastain and Isaac their robes, the two slowly exit together, to laughs, smiles, and affection, a handheld camera following from the doorway down a hallway to their separate dressing rooms where the two longtime friends hug, kiss, and part.
This final scene of self-congratulation might be entirely deserved. First of all, the two stars of the series are, simply and again, as I’ve noted in each of my episode reviews, absolutely superb, wholly convincing at every turn. That Levi, his stars, and his whole crew—everyone from the cinematographer and set designers to the personal assistants and intimacy coordinator, everyone—could manage a complex shoot like this in the throes of the pandemic is, I’ll grant, deserving of praise. Of course, the pandemic forced many to work in newly-dangerous conditions against their will, and they are society’s real heroes. But artists and content producers like Levi, Chastain, and Isaac and everyone involved below the title worked in difficult conditions too to produce the kind of art that fulfilled us in a time when we needed it more than ever before.
Even if the conclusion seems primarily self-congratulatory in a Brechtian, theatrical manner, calling attention to itself as a production, it’s one that to me doesn’t quite make narrative sense, ultimately, as a revision or update of Bergman. The series’ big risk—the gender switch that made Mira the primary breadwinner and the one to leave the marriage—resolved one problem but also created others beyond the writer-director’s control: while Levi was able to revise Jonathan from his own experience into a coherent character, his Mira ended up an incoherent mishmash of selfishness, ego, and impulse. Isaac and Chastain do everything they can to make their characters make sense, but in the end there may be a reason why Ingmar Bergman’s work is so often referenced and occasionally imitated but never directly adapted.
Forty-eight years ago, Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage was a radical turn to television from arthouse cinema’s foremost auteur, an experiment in small-screen drama that captured the imagination of its native Sweden and ultimately the world. Its frankness and brutality were uncompromising and revelatory. Levi’s remake, as handsomely mounted, professionally acted, and carefully choreographed as it is, is both elevated and hamstrung by its fidelity to its source. In swapping gender roles but keeping story-beats and lines of dialogue, its characters suffer: neither Jonathan nor Mira in particular seems a fully realized human being so much as a vehicle for the drama to continue.
Fortunately for viewers, the two are played by actors dedicated to their craft, wholly invested in the project, and committed to bringing these 21st-century Scenes from a Marriage to life. Their work and Levi’s make it a series of scenes worth watching, if not the revelatory, groundbreaking event Bergman’s had been in another far different era.