Scenes from a wedding episode 3, descending into “The Valley of Tears”
The following contains spoilers for Scenes from a wedding Episode 3, “The Vale of Tears”
The first two episodes of writer-director Hagai Levi’s HBO adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1973 TV series Scenes from a wedding made for a turbulent ride. Episode 1 depicts an unplanned pregnancy and abortion; Episode 2, an extramarital affair and a unilateral, if not mutual, decision to end a ten-year marriage. It may be safe to assume that somewhere along the way, newlyweds Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) enjoyed personal growth, mutual affection, and even domestic bliss. But these aren’t the kind of “scenes” that make up the original Bergman or this 2021 update.
By the end of the last episode, the big reveal from Levi’s update was clear: he had essentially swapped the story arcs and key traits of the two characters. The main breadwinner husband (Johan, played by Erland Josephson) was no longer adultery dictating the terms to his helpless wife Marianne (Liv Ullmann); in Levi, it is Mira, a high-level woman, a technical manager, who leaves her husband Jonathan, who takes care of them, for a new man and a new life abroad. Reversing gender roles seemed a necessity, said Levi, at a time when women had gained greater domestic, sexual and professional freedoms.
This role reversal also seems to target the kind of course correction adaptations so often attempted. Marianne de Liv Ullmann was, although a divorce lawyer, a helpless, obsequious and, in the midst of the series, entirely pathetic creature, grabbing and pawing at her husband to keep him from leaving her. Bergman, more generally, was hardly acclaimed as a feminist in her day. Outside and between his five marriages, he has formed romantic relationships with dozens of mistresses, including his lead actresses Harriett Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Ullmann – collaborators, yes, but also subordinates. A romantic relationship that begins, like Harriett Andersson’s, with a visit to the principal’s office to discuss career prospects, seems more than a little unfortunate in the #MeToo era.
On screen, Bergman’s fictional female creations were numerous and complex. Some of them, of course, were, as Peter Bradshaw called them in The Guardian, “tragi-sexual goddesses”. But Bergman’s work consisted of some 45 feature films spanning nearly six decades, ranging from domestic melodramas to folk adaptations to arthouse experimentalism, as well as documentary-style long drama. Scenes from a wedding. He recognized, in Bergman on Bergman, “An incessant fascination for the whole race of women […] there is something compulsive about it. In lesser known rates like Waiting women and On the edge of life he traced the lives of women with nuance and compassion. In dozens of his films, he creates female characters who resent their confinement by patriarchy, even if they rarely manage to transcend or escape it. Inconstant as he was off set, few filmmakers can boast of having created as many memorable female characters and opportunities for their performers as Bergman.
In his fourth episode of Bergman’s Scenes from a wedding, “Valley of Tears”, Johan visits Marianne while Paula is away. He thirsts both for wine and, in contemporary parlance, for sex. His career is booming and he is offered a post of department director. He does not intend to bring Paula with him; he’s sick of her, he said. He had hoped to seduce, but fell into pontification, teaching him a lesson about his existential anguish. Meanwhile, a series of small signs indicate that Marianne has started moving, rearranging furniture, claiming room for a desk – a room, so to speak, for herself – and even changing her name in the phone book. And she started therapy.
In one of the most moving sequences of the series, Marianne reads her diary. A slideshow of photos of a young Ullmann plays as Marianne recounts her youth and adolescence, her journey from innocence to sexuality. Bergman’s characters don’t usually lack frankness, but Marianne seems particularly open here. Unfortunately, Johan does not hear: he has fallen asleep. An opportunity to reconnect is lost. At the end of the evening, she shows Johan a letter she received from a remorseful Paula. True to form, Johan rejects Paula’s point of view and leaves.
As with each of his previous two episodes, Levi preserves each of the rhythms of Bergman’s story, although now, of course, the couple’s roles are largely reversed. Here, it’s Mira coming home, her hair now a brighter red, gleefully criticizing Jonathan’s new interior decor. She is offered a promotion and invites Jonathan, now on sabbatical, to accompany her with Ava to London. His is a business case, but it is rejected by Jonathan; all he wants is a divorce.
At this point in the series, Mira de Chastain has become more and more like Johan de Bergman and therefore as insufferable as him. I wanted Bergman’s Marianne to move on; I want Levi’s Mira to just move out. Is this the goal of his emancipation, to act like a 1970s man like Johan? While Levi’s role reversal was a decision seemingly born out of a need to give Chastain’s character more time, at this point it just made him a character who has abandoned her husband, child, and home, and who expects to be embraced and worshiped upon his return.
At Bergman, it was touching to see evidence of Marianne’s therapy, and her journal was written in a plausible, confessional, and diaristic tone. Levi’s Jonathan is an academic, not just a teacher but a scholar, and his “morning pages,” as his therapist calls duty, are made up of a distant and strangely pedantic third person. “He had been the victim of a sudden cataclysm,” he intones soberly, reading to Mira, who somehow does not fall asleep but quickly expresses disinterest in knowing more.
At times, you can see the affection the two had for each other, a glow that other scenes in this marriage might have been less desperate. As in Bergman, the two go to bed together, where they cuddle sexlessly before the outside world interrupts them. When Jonathan plays Mira a voice message from a repentant Poli, little Ava (the meanly cute Sophia Kapera) surprises. I love that in Levi’s update, Ava was a much more constant presence. Although she only appears onscreen for a few seconds in each episode, she’s still almost always there, in a conversation or in another room. No matter what Jonathan and Mira say or do, little Ava will be impacted by their choices. (Bergman would explore the consequences of estrangement in his 2003 semi-sequel Saraband.)
At the end of Episode 3 of Levi, the chemistry between Mira and Jonathan is palpable. But it’s like a faulty circuit: it spins in unpredictable jerks. A moment of compassion can be shortened by a dismissive insult, or a well-meaning word undermined by hesitation or gesture. Like Josephson and Ullmann decades ago, Chastain and Isaac here are fascinating even when their characters are at times at their worst. Dressed in her finest outfit, her shiny hair framing her opalescent complexion, Chastain can switch between alluring and repulsive. Isaac can make Jonathan a figure of deep sympathy for a second, a hesitant compounding the second, removing and stroking his wire rims in the brief moments of hesitation between the two.
The two are so convincing as adulterous lovers, spouses, and parents that it’s hard not to feel affection for both of them, no matter how harsh their words or actions. I’m tempted to think that Isaac and Chastain can do anything (maybe except play compelling X-Men villains). That Chastain could match Ullmann, one of the greatest actors in cinema, here and there deftly imitate the histrionic absurdity of Tammy Faye Bakker is astonishing. But here the two tracks seem quite in their element, using the intimacy of the close-up, the sense of small gestures, the nuance of each expression to express a couple whose romantic past is long gone and the future together in Danger.
Levi’s Scenes from a wedding cannot have the kind of cultural impact and heritage that Bergman had. At the most, it can aspire to a technically competent, well-edited and persuasively interpreted prestige production seen by a percentage of cable and streaming viewers hungry for a Bergman remake, an acting masterclass or of an instruction manual for breaking up a marriage with a slow and steady percolation of insults, betrayals and indignities. His role reversal, especially making the character of Chastain the one to run the narrative, was born out of necessity but hardly revealing, and when we see Mira and Jonathan next time next week, we’ll see how far they sail in. the following scenes of increasingly unraveling marriage.
If Levi continues to follow Bergman’s script closely, it won’t be pretty.