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Scenes From A Marriage, A Remake That Ingmar Bergman Would Have Liked

Scenes  From  A Marriage(HBO Series, 5 Episodes)

Starring   Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain

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Written  &  Directed by Hagai Levi

Rating: ****

First thing first. Is Jessica Chastain as good in the remake as Liv Ullmann in the original? Hard to do. But Chastain has done it. She smashes the screen and jumps at you with a feral ferocity that we witness on screen only once in a while.

Of course Oscar Isaac(one of contemporary American cinema’s rising phenomenon) is also a revelation. But somehow this version of Scenes From A Marriage is owned by Chastain. As Mira she is a volcano about to erupt. Tempestuous, tactile ,volatile. When she is on the screen(which is 90 percent of the playing time) we can’t take our eyes off her.

What is Mira thinking when she tells her house-husband Jonathan, out of the blue, that she is leaving , going away to Tel Aviv(of all the places!) with her new lover, whom until a few minutes earlier Jonathan knew nothing about?

This devastating revelation comes in Episode 2 and that’s where the narrative actually kicks off (episode1 is an aimless warm-up with an Indian actress Sunita Mani interviewing the couple on their marriage and the wife Mira pointlessly kissing a female friend in the bedroom at a dinner get-together) conferring on the collapsed marriage a kind of universality that will shake up every married couple, as it did when Bergman created a divorce cyclone   48 years ago. Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage had triggered off divorce spree in Sweden. I don’t see the  remake making any difference to modern marriages. Contemporary couples need no impetus to separate.

But they need to watch this highly illuminating take on the anatomy of a failed marriage to know how and why  excessive verbal interaction can ruin a marriage.

In an audacious volte face from the original, it is the wife Mira who has an extra-marital affair. In the original it’s  the husband who crosses the boundary. This change in the marital dynamics makes a radical feminist difference to the narrative. Chastain has to guard against being demonized while Isaac must make sure he doesn’t look like  a martyr. Both do a wonderful job of keeping their characters on a moral leash without stifling the crackling synergy that makes them so gloriously garrulous.

The series is not instantly likable. Neither Chastain nor Isaac play their parts for empathy. I have yet to come across a more disagreeable couple on screen. Barring perhaps Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Unlike Dick and Liz, there is minimal physical violence between this couple. This is a couple that can’t live together, but can’t live apart either. The love one another. But they don’t like each other any more.

What do we do with Mira and Jonathan? Each episode begins with Jessica Chastain and Christopher Isaac walking towards the bustling set(masks and all) to assume the on-screen roles of Mira and Jonathan. I don’t know why we are reminded each time that this is , at the end of the day, a make-believe couple. What we see is far from a mock-marriage. Frequently, I felt more an intruder than an audience to Mira and Jonathan’s crumbling marriage. It is an unsettling experience.

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