Film Quarterly columnist Rebecca Wanzo reads Hagai Levi’s remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage as a case study for ongoing debates about remakes. Noting the particular scorn a remake can be subject to when racial or gender identities are changed or updated, she suggests that Levi’s Scenes is a feminist update that also illustrates how genre can get in the way of more progressive renderings of gender roles, revealing instead the intransigence of heteronormative gender performance.
After Hagai Levi agreed to Daniel Bergman’s request to remake his father’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973), he struggled to identify with the original characters.1 He found Johan (Erland Josephson) “cold” and an “asshole,” and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) “very weak, dependent.”2 His solution, like that of many others who have embarked on remakes, was to switch the gender roles. It is now the wife, Mira (Jessica Chastain), who has the affair and leaves her family. She does not take as easily to parenting as husband Jonathan (Oscar Isaacs). And initially, she seems the colder, more selfish spouse. But while Levi framed the project as an updating of gender roles in marriage, a striking characteristic of his remake is the intransigence of heteronormative gender performance as narrative destination.
That Levi could be doing something similar to Bergman, or that he might even imagine that he could in any way improve the narrative for contemporary audiences, makes this a particularly interesting case study in terms of the ongoing debate about remakes. Upon the news that Levi had embarked upon this particular remake, pearls were undoubtedly clutched. The idea was likely met with even more disapprobation than the typical remake because Bergman is, after all, “BERGMAN”— even if Scenes makes cinephilic protectionism slightly incoherent given its status as a television series that has already been adapted multiple times for the stage.
The objections to remakes can be summarized as their being artistically vacuous exercises because they do nothing new, representing nostalgia for earlier versions that produce a visceral rejection regardless of how they may be reimagined, and posing a danger that the remake could supplant the purportedly superior original in the public imagination. Of the three possible objections, the newness is often viewed with particular scorn when there is an identity update in which racial or gender identities are changed or updated. Levi’s Scenes is an example of a feminist update, but it illustrates how there may be some genres that make more progressive renderings of gender roles a challenging exercise.
Marriage-dissolution narratives are often marked by changes in gender presentation that seem more progressive in terms of women’s roles even as the feminism is undercut. Stanley Cavell famously argued that in the film comedies of remarriage in the 1930s and 1940s, the women exhibited a sophistication and an early feminist politics.3 While not remakes, they were revising representations of the wife. I grew up watching these films and understood Katharine Hepburn as modeling feminist sophistication. I was an adult before I realized that the feminism in many of George Cukor’s films is often undermined by the ways that women are put in their place by treating intimate violence as playful comeuppance, or by dismissing arguments about inequality, as in his The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Adam’s Rib (1949). And some narratives show very little difference at all in gender presentation even if the style shifts.
Some marriage-dissolution films in the 1970s, such as Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), clearly did something new, with women pushing against traditional gender roles while looking for identities outside of wife and mother. But some scholars have now interpreted them as feminist-backlash films that punish women for their choices.4 Undercutting feminism may be as much a characteristic of the gender update in marriage-dissolution films as their supposed modernization.
Such undercutting is a feature of many of Bergman’s films, and he famously had a complicated relationship to representing women.5 He often focused on the interiority and agency of women even as his characterizations of them were marked by their infantilization, emotional instability, and violence against them as motivators of male character development. However, brilliant performances by Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Harriet Andersson (“Bergman’s Women”) made Bergman’s films as much as the films made his stars. The complexity of gendered representation allows his work to sometimes straddle the line between art cinema and women’s melodrama, and this is never more the case than with Scenes from a Marriage. In a review of the original series, Marsha Kinder recognized the relationship between Scenes and soap operas.6 The connection was its serial structure, the use of relationship dialogue as a primary focus of plot development, and the focus on women’s interiority through displays of spectacularized emotional excess.
This focus on spectacularized despair in relationships is one of the reasons that Levi was arguably the ideal creator to remake Scenes. His Israeli series BeTipul (2005–8) and its US remake, In Treatment (HBO, 2008–21), dramatize the talking cure.7 Between these projects and The Affair (Showtime, 2014–19), Levi has become somewhat of a specialist in depicting marital dissolution, as well as updating what Ingmar Bergman describes as the “emotional illiteracy” of his characters.8 In Scenes, the pas de deux between analyst and analysand is replaced by hours of a couple dissecting themselves and each other. In the works of both Bergman and Levi, the characters are often in various states of highly visible psychological disrepair—particularly the women.
Women are simply more spectacular, in all senses of the word, in both the original and new versions. Choosing which kind of gendered spectacle to put on display may be a major component of the feminist update, too, from showy adaptations of classic novels to make them more explicitly feminist, as in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019), to the first glimpse of the female Starbuck in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (NBC, 2004–9) displaying a macho bravado with a cigar in her mouth.
But in Bergman’s original Scenes, gendered spectacularity is more traditional: close-ups of Ullmann’s emotional unraveling and renewal are at the center of the episodes. Midway through the series, she narrates her childhood over a montage of family photographs; in the same episode, she describes emotional vulnerability when Johan tries to seduce her. In classic Bergman style, Johan’s face is only half visible behind a close-up of Marianne’s face, illustrative of his status as secondary to Marianne’s affect, which is privileged throughout the miniseries.9
Despite the traditional spectacularity of representations of the betrayed wife, the series shows the impact of movements for sexual liberation and gender equality in the second half of the twentieth century. Feminism has clearly shaped Marianne’s life in the original. She is a lawyer and becomes more sexually liberated over time. While she might have stayed monogamous in her second marriage if her husband had refrained from extramarital affairs, she seems happier by the end. If the emotional rhythm and choices of her character make her seem weak and dated, as Levi suggests, then the world—and popular media—have been filled with women who are similarly out of time.
In the 2021 remake, some aspects of Mira’s character are just as affectively at home in the past as the present. While her position as a major breadwinner would have been less common fifty years ago (nor is it the norm even now on- or off-screen), Mira embodies a few traditional gender tropes throughout the series. At the beginning, she seems more like Marianne. Levi does not extend the gender switch to the opening interview: she appears wan, vulnerable, and unsure of herself, deferring often to Jonathan. At the midpoint of the series, after she has moved in with her younger lover, she begins appearing with more make-up, more-polished hair, and sexier. Both Mira and Johan are emotionally manipulative, but with her new sexual stylization she moves into the conventional spectacularity of the femme fatale ex, leading a weaker husband astray from a potentially more loving and supportive partner.
But when Mira experiences professional disappointments, the comeuppance is particularly gendered since she describes her power at work as being connected to her sexual desirability. Mira is fired, suggesting that she has lost capital to a woman she describes as “new, young,” and “ambitious,” who is “more fun.” She complains that she is now “invisible” because she is “old” and “disposable” and has lost the “power that comes from being desirous.” While in the original, Marianne states that she has a job “she enjoys and is good at,” decades later, Mira links her success to her physical attractiveness. While Mira’s experiences are unquestionably real for some middle-aged professional women who are able to gain professional capital from their adherence to conventional beauty standards, the firing does not suggest that she is unaccomplished at her job, but rather that she benefitted from her appearance, knew it, and mourns the loss of that capital.
The gender-role switch and update are other examples of politically tendentious modernization. Marianne’s work identity in Bergman’s hands seems closer to feminist ideals than Mira’s identity in the remake, despite a setup that treated her financial success as a sign of both women’s progress and the narrative’s gender-role evolution. Arguably, Mira’s cognizance of how her attractiveness functions at work is a meditation on sexism. But the lament lacks any criticism of the privilege that she could access and others cannot, suggesting a temporal continuity not only to sexism but to some women’s complicity in it. Mira may not be the kind of woman who would critique what is problematic about the kind of power she possessed, but audiences are equally complicit in the pleasure they may take in the trope of the intelligent, normatively beautiful woman’s power and her ability to weaponize it. In some form, this was just as much a convention in early Hollywood as it is in the twenty-first century.
Initially, the male role seems to have truly been updated in Levi’s version. In the original, husband Johan has an unpleasant monologue about feminism that ends with his saying he is joking, although the audience suspects that he is not. In the update, the contemporary model of a man who explicitly embraces the idea of being a primary caregiver makes Jonathan a more progressive representation. However, when it comes to romantic love and sex, his affective trajectory also partially descends into a more traditional gender performance.
While the audience gets to see his emotional vulnerability in the early episodes, by the last two he becomes a cold and unapologetic adulterer who finds a new partner only to procreate. The betrayed spouse Marianne in the seventies is still attracted to Johan, turns to adultery only when her new spouse refuses to commit to monogamy, and still seems to maintain the core of her warmth and empathy even as she feels empowered to seek pleasure. In contrast, the gender switch in the 2021 version does not produce a comparably betrayed male spouse to maintain the emotional openness of the earlier series. Rather, Jonathan’s gender performance of male aloofness makes him more similar to the cheating husband in the original.
Thus despite Levi’s stated intentions, his Scenes remake may be an example of what Kristen Warner terms a “plastic representation” in terms of gender. Changing the gender or racial identity of characters is now a frequent creative decision in the remake, reboot, or new adaptation. When done poorly, Warner argues, it can be “plastic representation” in which identity changes with “little adjustment to the parts themselves,” and “superficial” changes encourage the framing of the original story as universal.10 Race and gender do not function in the same way, but with both kinds of changes, there is a tension between the remake that retells the story because it indicates the universality of the narrative and the remake that is retold because it shows the difference that identity makes. Interestingly, this is “plastic” because it doubles down on the universality of marriage-dissolution narratives while strongly showing how entrenched gender is to presenting the story. No matter the quality of the feminist update, repetition is, perhaps unconsciously, the raison d’être of such works.
The idea of the modern woman and the conceit of modern love encourage audiences and creatives to reimagine and translate the idea of “the modern” even as the core conventions remain.11 When people evoke the timelessness of Bergman’s Scenes and other works that seem above or beyond remakes, they ignore that the original Bergman and its new versions are tied to the narrative and visual vocabulary of this very conventional plot. Even Bergman was reworking the generic past.
K. J. Yossman, “‘Scenes from a Marriage’ Showrunner Hagai Levi on the HBO Remake: ‘Ingmar Bergman’s Spirit Was Keeping an Eye on Me,’” Variety, September 6, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/tv/global/scenes-from-a-marriage-hagai-levi-hbo-venice-1235057127/.
Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
Roslyn Mass, “The Mirror Crack’d: The Career Woman in a Trio of Lansing Films,” Film Criticism 12, no. 2 (Winter 1987–88): 28–36.
Gender representations are one of the dialectics in his works, with some critics suggesting that the films reveal a strand of misogyny and others seeing a veneration of women and an expression of liberation. See Frank Gado, The Passion of Ingmar Bergman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), xv; and Birgitta Steene, “Bergman’s Portrait of Women: Sexism or Subjective Metaphor,” in Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, ed. Patricia Erens (New York: New Horizon Press, 1979): 91–107.
Marsha Kinder, “Review: Scenes from a Marriage by Ingmar Bergman,” Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (Winter 1974–75): 48–53.
Levi’s original Israeli series has also been adapted for a number of other countries.
“Ingmar Bergman on Scenes from a Marriage,” on Scenes from a Marriage, directed by Ingmar Bergman (New York: Criterion Collection, 2018), Blu-ray disc.
Episode 4, “The Vale of Tears.”
Kristen J. Warner, “In the Time of Plastic Representation,” Film Quarterly 71, no. 2 (Winter 2017), https://filmquarterly.org/2017/12/04/in-the-time-of-plastic-representation/.
A conceit of the recent film Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2021) is that Bergman might inspire other artists to create new versions of the relationship genre. Hansen-Løve’s film is a meditation on the difference gender makes not only in relationships but in creativity. The protagonist, Chris, is a screenwriter but has obstacles to creativity not shared by her filmmaker husband. Chris somewhat attributes her challenges to responsibilities for caregiving, and Bergman, despite being a father many times over, had various women to do that care work so he could create. She thus tries to imagine a relationship story that speaks to a woman’s loss without the abjection of Bergman’s films, and also to create space for creating even as her children remain on her mind.