‘Scenes from a Marriage’ Review – Contemporary Marital Paradigm or Predictable Conformist?


Relationship dramas over a period of time are known to invest an ample amount of time in analyzing the subjects of love, sex, detachment, and separation and have proved to be immensely revolutionary in exhuming them from the abyss of banality. Following the revolutionary fervor of the likes of Sex and the City reflected in the series’ role in addressing the perceived nuances and intricacies of female sexuality, arduous attempts have been and are being ceaselessly made to stretch the boundaries of a much-applauded conventional ‘domestic bliss’. Scenes from a Marriage, premiered on September 12, 2021, on HBO starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac and written as well as directed by Hagai Levi, seemingly deconstructs the very notion of bliss as it continues to inspire satisfaction and distress amongst the viewers through its detailed and layered representation of failing marital expectations.

Truth is already known that the Scenes from a Marriage is an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s influential series in 1973 that had triggered atrophying the stigmatization of divorce in Swedish society. In this respect, the divided opinions of the optimism of the contemporary viewers and the cynicism of original filmmaker’s fans on the shared stardom of the duo have trapped the remake in a whirlpool of lauding as well scathing criticisms. A rigorous search for a reasonable conjecture must do away with the litany of comparisons and contextualize the drama miniseries within the framework of ideologies, performance, and its ability to remain faithful to the primary plotline.

Scenes from a Marriage begins with the protagonists, Mia and Jonathan, being used as subjects of study for a doctoral dissertation entitled, ‘Evolving gender norms and its effect on monogamous marriage’ The difference in the content and purpose of the interview (from Johan and Marrianne’s interview in 1973) sees a change in the manner of portraying the marital duo to the audience thus shaping the perception and the direction of the story and the plausible interpretations regarding the same. Capturing the essence of a thriving ‘bourgeois marriage’ was replaced with the influence of changing gendered norms on heterosexual monogamous marriage. The point that needs to be emphasized is whether the series justifies the ideological context or is just another take on indecisiveness resulting in declining marital expectations.

The climax of the plot in Episode 2 of the Scenes from a Marriage titled ‘Polis’ answers the primary theme of the interview by highlighting the role of adultery in shaping the marital relationship between Mia and Jonathan. The confession by the former, a paragon of independent and ambitious married women working at a high profile tech Company and prioritizing profession over societal expectations, is seen as a rigorous attempt to break free from a defined space and loosen the boundaries. Here, Mira’s role, an adaptation of her original counterpart Johan in 1973, suffers the danger of being placed at the receiving end of trenchant criticism, not on account of having steering her choice towards a disapproved arena (free of marital responsibilities) but having that choice in the first place. This differentiates the tone of the series from Bergman’s masterpiece. However, it would be misleading to place the progression of the series within a gendered or feminist framework, in particular; the reasons being a regurgitation of the importance of motherhood, the recreation of an unstable, old, and unwanted middle-aged ‘female’ and a blatant sidelining of the elements of intersectionality.

Throughout the series, the significance of motherhood was the recurring emotion discerned in Mira’s constant emotional struggles to get out of her role as a mother, thereby showing how the series has failed to address some of the complexities and daring aspects posed by radical feminism and advocates of a changing gender role over generations. Bergman’s portrayal of Johan’s indifference towards his children was revolutionary in its context in this regard; one that conflated with the rising trends of the Women’s Liberation Movement (a recurring theme throughout the series and a subject of ridicule for Johan) and the series’ broader theme questioning the legitimate nature of marriage.

The remake’s ‘Vale of Tears’ was less about the gravity of the duo’s emotional baggage as it has successfully depicted the trauma of a woman whose failed career and marriage have ignited a sense of insecurity, fears, and doubts associated with living in a cruel, modern world. This brings out the absence of intersectionality as the series suggests no alternative for either Jonathan or Mira in their respective sexual lives throughout their ordeal. Here, heterosexuality and the gender binary constituted the key paradigm in the process of depicting and exploring relationships. It is difficult for the viewers to acquire any sense of the significance of Mira and Kate’s kiss in the very first episode hinting at the presence of a burgeoning lesbian relationship but at no point was this uttered or materialized as the series ostensibly went on to imitate the original version in its delineation of characters’ “misadventures” and the series’ culmination.

The remake also introduced the viewers to a plethora of characters and, in this very attempt, has failed to cast sidelights on the central dyadic conflict. Whether it is the perceived ‘bickering’ between Kate and Peter at the very first episode of the series or the cameo appearance of Polis or Jonathan’s mother at the very end; the relevance of the characters’ presentation to the overall tone of the plot leaves major gaps for the viewers especially concerning its primary themes that include ensconcing differing perspectives in the prolonged debates on degrading marital expectations and their outcomes or the duo’s self-reflection. Be it the series’ inability to meet the broader ideological parameters or the lack of chemistry between Isaac and Chastain pertaining to the uniformity maintained in the former’s tight-lipped presentation of a confused male breadwinner’ and the forced bewilderment of the pair, the series lacks in exuding a brilliant performance or the relatable amount of tensions in quotidian married life.

It is not fair to compare the remake with the original but to evaluate the former in its own right that, in this case, bears the burden of failure to meet the appropriate context or stay true to the ‘evolving’ norms regarding gender or marriage in the contemporary world. However, the issue remains subjective as to whether the show inspires Entertainment, an analysis of marriage in the present set-up or is just another cribbing in the name of the portrayal of marital contempt.

Scenes from a Marriage is a 2021 Television Drama Series created Hagai Levi. The series is an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s influential series of the same name that aired in 1973. It is streaming on HBO Max.

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Jayasmita Dutta Roy
Jayasmita Dutta Roy
Jayasmita Dutta Roy is an aspiring Film Critic and a Writer at High on Films. From the forgotten classic to the happening contemporaries, she have an instinctive predilection for analyzing, reviewing, and writing about films and a knack for blending cinematic brilliance with academic understanding.

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