The recent American drama television miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage (2021) is an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s influential 1973 Swedish series on the impossibly complex dilemmas of navigating a marriage once the rot has set in. Bergmann’s original was perceived to have a seismic effect on the moral-cultural norms governing monogamous heterosexual marriages and was held responsible for soaring divorce rates in Sweden and across Europe. While the 2021 remake by Israeli director Hagai Levi, might not lead to any such watershed demographic consequences, it was still received with ambivalence – divided opinions of optimism and cynicism among contemporary viewers. The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan calls it “relentlessly intimate” as we see the lead characters whose marriage is disintegrating in the most eloquent ugliness. Alan Sepinwall of Rolling Stone notes how the Scenes puts its viewers through a “psychological warfare” where it has been performed and filmed in the most naturalistic style by two brilliant actors, Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain.
Shot mostly in the interiors of an upper-middle class American household, it has a possibility of having a profoundly anguishing effect on post-pandemic minds where the sense of entrapment seems viscerally suffocating. As such, true to its times, the remake has flipped the gender narrative in the marriage. In Levi’s Scenes, the ‘breadwinner’ wife (as opposed to the husband in the original) is an ambitious executive in a high profile tech company and is also the one who instigates the separation. The husband, in contrast, is the primary caregiver of their young daughter given his flexibility of being an academic. Despite this outwardly aesthetics of a democratic modern coupledom, the gendered anxiety around appropriate performance of motherhood is palpable. Early in the series, we see how when interviewed by a psychology student on the success of their marriage (which has outlasted the national average), Mira’s (the wife) anxious overemphasis on her role as a mother as her self-definition. In comparison, Jonathan’s (the husband) response to the question of self-definition (as a father, as an academic) is almost natural, unburdened. The towering point of this belaboured articulation of Mira is however when she drops the verbal grenade of separation. In an intensely crafted scene, Mira, exasperated and embarrassed at the same time, notes how she has found “passion” in the new relationship with a much younger man. Mira’s decision to leave to pursue passion and professional success offers the possibility to question the promise and the limits of individual happiness. Above all, it allows us to ask whether the neoliberal triad of self-fulfillment, self-care and self-actualization is a mindless consumerist distraction after all? Or, are marriages based on such purported ideals lay waste to relationships?
Feminist academic, Sara Ahmed’s compelling provocation in The Promise of Happiness (2010) offers helpful insights. Ahmed sifts through the gendered and racial history of happiness to show how happiness has been often used to justify oppression. For example, the ‘happy housewife’ figure that dominated the American media in the 1960s with television commercials of pretty suburban housewives beaming over foaming dishpans is a curated invisibilization of the domestic drudgery of women. The same logic may apply on the sentimentalization of heterosexual marriages under the garb of “domestic bliss”. As such, Ahmed argues that our will to happiness has been buttressed by the ‘happiness turn’ that makes happiness almost compulsory. Marked by a flourishing feel-good industry, self-help gurus, therapeutic cultures and influences of positive psychology, the happiness industry is on full throttle. One of the indicators of happiness, as argued by researchers, is marriage. In fact, demographers concur that marriage offer unique benefits (instrumental, affective and sexual) that are not available to those who are single. Ahmed notes that this finding almost works as a recommendation: get married and you will be happier! “This intimacy of measurement and prediction is powerful” Ahmed contends since it makes marriage a project in “happiness duty”. And hence when happiness is missing from where it is to be most expected (like, within a marriage), it is perceived as a crisis. Strikingly, any amiss in the actualization of happiness does not make us question the social ideals governing it, but our ‘failure’ to follow them.
In this framing, the family becomes a happy object through the work that must be done to keep it together. Infact, Ahmed goes on to argue how the Sunday breakfast table becomes a ‘kinship object’ (in addition to other proximate objects including photographs, furniture, etc) which secures the family intimacy over time. This is significant, since in Levi’s Scenes, Mira proclaims how she has no attachment to furniture or any other domestic materialities that constitute the idea of home. Happiness also involves staying on the right path (i.e. being oriented toward the ‘family table’). By deviating from the socially expected path (staying in a monogamous long-term marriage), Mira becomes what Ahmed calls, a “killjoy” – one who kills the joy of a family and also the one, who is alienated from the joys of the family. This plays out in the most significant way in Mira’s arc. Although, she chooses to pursue freedom from marriage and motherhood, the sustainability of her new relationship rests on her ability to (re)produce the familial form (her new lover insists on having a child). Later, when a distraught Mira expresses her desire to return to her husband, she is denied the familiarity of home. In other words, Mira becomes the troublemaker since she relinquishes her marital and mothering duties-both being key to the happiness script. Building on noted feminist scholar, Judith Butler’s influential text Gender Trouble, Ahmed notes this intimate link between happiness and trouble. “Happiness might be what keeps you out of trouble only by evoking the unhappiness of getting into trouble.”
Does this mean that ‘transgressions’ will inevitably lead to unhappiness? And what does a feminist reading of the conjoined possibility of transgression and happiness do to our understanding of women who choose passion over social duty? Ahmed’s assurance of the promise of feminism is noteworthy. She notes that by refusing to go along the public displays of happiness (i.e. the performative burdens of a happy wife and marital bliss) a feminist orientation widens the horizons of happiness. As such, the ending of Levi’s Scenes reinforces this expansive possibility. Unlike cinematic climaxes where the female lead is held culpable by evoking the injustice of happiness – ‘showing what and whom happiness gives up’, the Scenes ends in the most exceptional way. It shows an unapologetic Mira pursuing happiness that could be called her own, one that is not saturated with the burdened history of social happiness. In closing, it might be worthwhile to invoke sociologist, Eva Illouz’s End of Love that asks this most brilliantly: should one remain loyal to the man [marriage], or loyal to one’s truth in the pursuit of individual happiness? Illouz’s woman interlocutor decidedly chose the latter.