Wednesday, October 27, 2021

In scenes from a marriage, Jessica Chastain interprets cheating as a feminist act

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The remake of Ingmar Bergman’s groundbreaking TV series turns the roles around – and dispels old prejudices about who can be a bad spouse

Ingmar Bergman’s drama from 1973 Scenes from a marriage was a groundbreaking television series about the implosion of a relationship, the impact of which was so powerful that it was blamed for a surge in divorces when it first aired.

The Swedish television show starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson was a painfully intimate look at domestic disputes, done with psychological honesty, by Richard Linklater’s younger filmmakers (Before midnight) to Noah Baumbach (Marriage story).

Now director Hagai Levi is following the master filmmaker with a reinterpretation of the story, with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as his leading roles.

In many ways, the tacts of the plot are similar: an agreed abortion that becomes a point of contention; other well-known relationship horrors such as the compatibility of childcare and career; petty and not so small arguments; and the issue of extramarital indiscretion.

1973 was just on the cusp of the second wave of the feminist movement – a time when divorce rates soared and many realized that they had not been fulfilled by the traditional gender roles that were given them. Bergman tried to view with surgical precision the emotional damage men often inflict on women, and to place his story in the context of socially divided times.

In the 2021 edition, Levy reversed these roles with interesting results. Mira (Chastain) is the company’s high-flyer and breadwinner, while Jonathan (Isaac), an academic, is in charge of childcare. Since Mira is busy and often away from home, she – not her husband, as in the Bergman series – gets into an affair. She comes home one evening to tell Jonathan that she is going on a long business trip with her boyfriend and that she will not see him and the child for a few months.

The intimate horror of these scenes makes your stomach upset no matter who’s to blame, but it’s especially interesting to see how fearlessly the series exchanges expectations. Many viewers like Mira – even unconsciously – more than a man who has done something similar. Selfishness, impulsiveness, and adultery are still harder to forgive in women. And some mistakes – especially sexual misconduct – are often only expected from men. They are so familiar that they have passed into clich├ęs.

When Mira pierces her almost decades-long marriage like a wound and leaves her astounded husband completely broken, it immediately makes it easy for her to sympathize with Jonathan.

But Chastain also embeds real torment in her performance, running around in a fog of domestic alienation from which she seems to be desperate to escape. There is a feeling that this woman has been repressing her own feelings and urges for too long, with a husband too inattentive and self-centered to even notice her misfortune. And so, like many other affairs, their affair becomes a kind of kamikaze act of rebellion.

Levy uses a framing device in which the actors go through their own set of films to highlight the stagnation of the move, the familiarity of the “marital breakdown” drama we’ve seen many times and which Bergman helped create. That self-esteem also reverses the stale trope of the deceiving husband, turning Mira’s betrayal into a feminist act: a both proud and terrible recapture of self and needs when women are expected to take them over.

Scenes from a marriage becomes a Rorschach test of how we judge men compared to women, and removes old prejudices about who can be a bad spouse.

Scenes from a marriage is on Sky Atlantic / NOW TV starting Monday, October 11th

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