‘You upgrade your phone, why not your marriage?’ The TV show set to send divorce rates soaring

In 1973, Ingmar Bergman released Scenes from a Marriage. The seminal Swedish TV series saw a luminous Liv Ullmann and a tortured Erland Josephson play Marianne and Johan, whose marriage is deliquescing with the most elegant ugliness. Their pain is exquisite and their liberation hard-won, but it is – in the end – a victory for authenticity. For these perfect people are trapped by convention.

“It was very political and very revolutionary,” says Hagai Levi, the Israeli director who has just remade the series for HBO, with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in the lead roles. “And very outrageous! Back then, even the word ‘divorce’ was shocking.” In Bergman’s series, the couple are crushed by the weight of their own seeming perfection, the relinquishment of which makes it feel so emancipating, and so novel. This was not an Ibsen rehash, a Doll’s House message (“it’s OK to leave bad people”) but something much more seismic, in the 70s at least. Even though Johan is the jerk who takes off, the point is: sometimes neither party is bad – they are simply not themselves until they part.

It was turned into a film, won numerous awards and became a conservative bugbear, responsible for spiking divorce rates in Sweden and across Europe. Can a film have such an impact? Or is cinema not so much a driver as an iteration of changing norms? My parents split up around this time, 1976. I find it tickling to imagine my mum’s face if my dad had tried to stick it on Ingmar Bergman.

Undeniable, though, was its influence: from Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, subsequent films about couples used it as a staple. Bergman also haunts many recent projects, such as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Sam Levinson’s explosive Malcolm & Marie. Yet this is the first time a director has used Bergman’s masterpiece as a blueprint, and remade it, “keeping to the structure of every scene”, as Levi explains. However, the conclusion has never been more different.

Speaking from Tel Aviv, Levi tells me he kept the structure, but never intended to stick to the original script, and the new series opens with a beautifully awkward exchange. Mira, played with painful intensity by Chastain, and Jonathan, played by Isaac, are interviewed by a PhD student about their marriage. They’re asked to give their pronouns. “He, him, his,” says Isaac with the gusto of a man happy to keep up with the times. “She,” Chastain tentatively begins, and her husband fills in “her, hers” over the top. Ah, you think, we’re in apparently-sensitive-husband-is-actually-an-arsehole territory. But that’s not where we are at all.

Both performances are intense, but the hurt on Isaac’s face as Chastain pulls away from him – the shadow of his terror as he eats spaghetti and thinks he sees disgust in her eyes – is so pin-accurate I had to look away. Rumour has it that Chastain, at least, cried every day on set. Each episode begins with a behind-the-scenes tracking shot, clapper boards and busy people. “I did that,” Levi says, “to show that it’s much more abstract than this specific couple. It’s a stage, these are actors.” The backstage conceit invites you to put yourselves in their shoes – though I would sincerely advise you not to.

Chastain is the one to leave, “and the moment I had her leaving, immediately I felt closer to her,” Levi recalls. “I felt I understood her desperation and her need.” But if he’s flipped the gender dynamic – Mira is the bolter and the breadwinner, Jonathan theconstant, and the caregiver – Levi has also reversed something much more fundamental. “If Bergman spoke about the price of marriage, he wanted to say, basically, marriage kills love. I want to speak about the price of separation. I don’t think we speak enough about how hard it is and traumatic it is to separate.”

The work of sociologist Eva Illouz made him think differently about the toll of splitting up. “I had been divorced twice, [but] I hadn’t been thinking much about that traumatic side of separation and divorce until reading [Illouz’s book] The End of Love,” he says. “How it affects you both psychologically and physically, how difficult it makes it to trust and love again, how long it takes to recover.”

Of course a 2021 exploration of marriage would be different; the institution has changed. As Levi says, “I think when you enter a marriage right now, you know already that it’s conditional. The contract is no longer final. We’re together until one of us feels it’s not for them any more. Both characters …” – he corrects himself, laughing – “sorry, both people know it could be temporary.” The logical underpinning of that – can you possibly make a lifelong promise if you’re prioritising the search for yourself? – is explored in the “bad marriage” of the piece. Mira and Jonathan are, for a while at least, the “perfect” couple – happy parents, with their high-spec kitchen and their super-respectful, discursive tone.

The pair have two friends, conceived as a counterpoint. In Levi’s version, Kate and Peter are a polyamorous couple with kids. Kate’s boyfriend has finished with her, and Peter is sulking that she had one in the first place (it seems apposite to note that he started it, with the polyamory). “Kate says she feels very proud that her children can actually see her looking for her own happiness and self-actualisation,” Levi says. “I wrote that in a very ironic way, but it was perceived [by reviewers] as a very honest, and very nice monologue, very convincing.”

We return to The End of Love, “a brilliant analysis of the connection between capitalism and relationships. [Illouz] quotes a woman saying this exact sentence, ‘should I be loyal to this man or loyal to my truth? Of course I would choose the second.’ Which is amazing!”

The pursuit of happiness lays waste all relationships in Levi’s Scenes from a Marriage, whether monogamous or not. Self-fulfilment is another wheel on the charabanc of consumerism, a kind of mindless gratification. “You change your iPhone, you’re encouraged to look for the new,” says Levi. “Why wouldn’t marriage be part of that? Why shouldn’t I look for a better model?”

Levi’s conclusions are quite un-American, then: is happiness the thing to pursue? He recognises this in surprise, having had a decades-long career in both Israel and the US, previously porting ideas from one to the other with ease. The conceit for BeTipul, Levi’s drama in which a psychologist sees a changing cast of patients, was seamlessly transposed to another HBO series, In Treatment. He lands on something disorientating about his Scenes from a Marriage: that even while it is plainly an American production, with an American cast, it has a European sensibility. “For me, it’s American,” he says, “for you it’s American. For them it’s not American enough”.

Rather, it is somewhere between the two, with the influence of the original – the new show was instigated by Bergman’s son – combining with Levi’s formative screen experiences to create something powerfully recognisable. “Throughout my teenage years and 20s [he was born in 1963], we only one public TV channel in Israel, and I guess they didn’t have enough money to buy American shows. We had a lot of British television. The Singing Detective! Dennis Potter was my god.”

As for the aesthetic, he describes the original as “almost ugly, [Bergman’s] cinematographer always called it his most ugly work,” says Levi. “It wasn’t that I wanted to make it more beautiful per se, but I had more money …” The main visual difference is that his series takes place entirely in Mira and Jonathan’s house, with a hyper-realism that recalls a later Scandinavian movement, Dogme, a manifesto of strict rules for radical experiment as pioneered in the 90s by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.

“It’s helpful for me to have rules,” the director says. “To say, this is your field of play, then be free within those boundaries. Probably also because I was religious myself. Until the age of 20, I was orthodox Jew”. His background is echoed in his hero, Jonathan, who was an Orthodox Jew growing up and holds his lost faith as key to his identity. Lost religion and the residue of rules loom over the pursuit-of-happiness creed that Levi describes, as per Illouz, as our “shallow freedom.”

You might reasonably expect Scenes from a Marriage to be a remake, a respectful modernisation of the original. But the exact opposite is true. If Bergman smashed convention, Levi sifts through the smithereens, constantly lacerating himself and us, figuring out what could be salvaged, and what should never have been broken. It would be a reach to say it may herald a global spike in people getting back together. But it’s devastating, bewitching and – bizarrely – as original as the original.

Scenes from a Marriage begins in the UK on Sky Atlantic/Now on 11 October

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