Ingmar Bergman once referred to the obstacles and difficulties of marriage as the agony of the couple. HBO‘s new release Scenes from a Marriage owes a lot to the original 1973 Swedish miniseries in terms of plot. But in this case, the director Hagai Levi decided to go for a couple of twists. Regarding the portrait of gender roles, freedom, and a ton of sensuality.

It takes courage to break the rules

In the series, presented this year at Venice Film Festival, there is a successful wife, Mira, played by Jessica Chastain. After getting an abortion, she breaks out of her marriage and leaves her home to regain freedom. Her husband Johnathan (Oscar Isaac), stays home to deal with their little daughter and his job as an academic.

Scenes from a Marriage shows how a 10-year relationship can turn into a divorce. But their separation looks like a loss: death is a recurring element, and sorrow is treated as a permanent condition of the soul. Something that should be taught to children. That’s the reason why in the last episode, Mira and Johnathan – who’s just regained his faith in Judaism – decide to celebrate a fake Shiva (the Jewish rite for the funeral) of their marriage.

The end comes when they admit their love will last forever. Only, it’s a dead thing. Levi dissects this corpse with no mercy, asking the audience if there’s a right way to say goodbye. And how, more than why, a love story ends.

On-screen equality was not negotiable

In an interview for Access, Jessica Chastain admits the intimacy she and Oscar Isaac had on-screen was something she wasn’t able to leave behind before heading back home. In Oscar Isaac’s opinion, none of this could have been possible if she wasn’t cast as his partner. Their long-term friendship, since their time at Julliards , helped them to feel comfortable with each other under such an emotional burden.

Scenes from a Marriage is all about crashing gender stereotypes and roles, reversing Bergman’s perspective. While Ingmar Bergman criticised a a hypocritical and conservative society, Hagai Levi condemns the inability of the couple to communicate and take responsibility for their decisions in a liberal world.

Jessica Chastain – who’s also the executive producer along with Daniel Bergman, son of the world-known director – made it clear that naked scenes were acceptable, as long as everything she showed, her male counterpart showed as well.

The on-screen tension between characters is so engaging thanks to an extremely dense script, where dialogue is fundamental. Behind every single line hides something else: a deeper meaning, an accusation, or a lie. A radical shift in terms of power that makes every one-hour episode dense and mild at the same time.

Directing an all-interior movie with just two characters is a challenge. A movie like Malcolm and Marie showed how easily the telling of a conflicted love story can go from ambitious to pretentious. A divorce without escape, pushing on the dramatic side, is something also seen in Marriage Story, Manchester by the Sea, and A Separation. But this time, Levi makes use of all the experience coming from his previous works Be Tipul (then adapted for American television as In Treatment) and The Affair, to avoid any excess. The characters’ psychological complexity makes it impossible to choose one side.

When love is not a fairy tale

Mira and Johnathan can’t get rid of one another. But in order to stay together on their terms, they keep falling into a pattern where they try to fix their mistakes. In this scenario, their house plays a central role: it’s a leitmotiv in every episode. It represents stability for their marriage, the safety of the routine, a comfortable nest where they can play the perfect family pretending everything’s working well. Until it’s not, and their home turns into the prison. The symbol of a white, monogamous, bourgeois family where roles simply don’t fit.

The very first scene of each episode shows actors on set, entering the house or walking between cameras and technicians before work. This device points out that the house is a world apart from reality. It makes Mira and Johnathan’s love story more archetypical – and because of that, more authentic. There’s no voyeurism: every episode is cathartic, a theatre-like therapy session where the story is enacted for the audience to hear and process.

An empty house, a full heart

The closing titles always appear over frames with empty rooms. They lack people but are full of common, living objects – as if Mira and Johnathan just left for dinner with their daughter. While the story progresses, the house dramatically changes. Rooms get repurposed and furniture disappears. Their distance grows and divorce becomes real until they decide to sell the house.

Despite all the grief and resentment, not a single episode of Scenes from a Marriage goes without showing genuine love between the two of them. There’s not a moment where the audience can doubt the sincerity of their affection.

They had laughed. They had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come, while everything else – the cold, and where he’d go in it – was outside, for a while anyway.

Raymond Carver, What do we talk about when we talk about love

Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage has a bittersweet ending. It resolves the couple’s conflict with the acceptance of their lonely condition. Levi’s version is more optimistic. There’s a little hope for this tragic but irreplaceable love: in a new room, in someone else’s bed, the sun rises peacefully on Mira and Johnathan. In being together on their terms, there’s reconciliation. And after that, everything is over: no judgment, no morality lesson.