For that matter, is a marriage that ends necessarily a failure? Does a marriage ever really end — is marriage, in the larger sense, a state of being that continues even if you split up? Is it something that exists between two characters, or is it a third character, with a life of its own? Or is it the only character, binding two people into one complex organism even when they’re apart?
Bergman’s series probed these questions, and so does Levi’s, in much the same way and over many of the same story beats, with skill if not wild originality.
The five episodes are not actually titled “Denial,” “Anger,” “Bargaining,” “Depression” and “Acceptance,” but they cover the stages of marital grief in much that way. Levi’s scripts (two co-written with Amy Herzog) borrow lines from Bergman’s original, but the voice is distinct. The installments are play-like, generally involving a handful of scenes that cover a short span of time; the movement comes in the conversations, which shift naturally from banality to flirtation to viciousness to détente.
Levi is a deft emotional choreographer, and Chastain and Isaac are the dancers you want executing the steps. Jonathan is a type Isaac plays well, a reflective intellectual with a “need for moral superiority” who holds a lot of resentment and familial-religious angst behind that lush beard. Chastain’s Mira is both more expressive and more controlled; she has less guilt about wanting more from life and love, but she’s more volatile than she lets the world see.
When they fight, they fight explosively; one confrontation turns uncomfortably physical. Their muscle-memory sexual attraction is wholly believable. (I remind you: They are played by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.) Their connection comes through in tiny moments, as when Jonathan packs a suitcase for Mira, simultaneously an act of love and aggression.
It’s all well observed and exquisitely acted, yet this “Scenes” seems to have defied Tolstoy by finding an unhappy family that is unhappy in a very familiar way. The gender swap may say something about husbands and wives redefining their roles, but TV has had a half century of heterosexual marriage stories since Bergman to work that one out.