Scenes from a Marriage
Is there such a thing as the right way to leave a marriage? Are there better and worse times to tell the person you used to love that you now love someone new? Is there a level of specificity or abstraction that can make it bearable? What’s the best time of day? Day of the week? Month of the year? When Mira tells Jon she’s ending their ten-year marriage and moving to Tel Aviv, there’s a blanket of snow on the ground but no talk of the holidays around the corner. It’s late enough for their daughter, Ava, to be asleep (school tomorrow) and for the nine o’clock train from somewhere (New York?) to have pulled into Boston. Is this a good time — across the kitchen island on the heels of a work trip? Will Jon forever associate the disintegration of his marriage with cold noodles straight from the Tupperware?
Mira isn’t home when the episode opens. Ava, who has already called mommy to say good night, wants to call again; she wants Jonathan to explain precisely how he knows mommy will be there tomorrow because she doesn’t trust it. Maybe this is what happens when one parent is often away, or maybe Ava senses her mother’s reluctance when she puts on the husk of her married life. Mira doesn’t want to be home. No, worse. This isn’t where Mira feels at home.
Time has passed since the abortion, and Jon’s new attic office is half-finished — a metaphor, I suppose. Jon and Mira have tried to move on, but the guts of their house are hanging out. Mira’s lost interest in renovating — in the project of putting things exquisitely in place. After tucking in his daughter, Jon goes to his desk to watch porn and masturbate. He listens to some music; he putzes. He’s in the kitchen when Mira walks in the front door a day early. They hug and kiss and chat about Ava, who is sleeping better with the sound machine Mira got her. Mira is a good mom. She identifies problems and solves them even when she’s not there. Jon pours Mira the glass of wine she asks for and apologizes for complaining about the state of the house. He’s a good husband who doesn’t want to cause headaches. Mira knows that he’s a good husband, and yet she’s turned off even by the way he eats pasta — sloppy and loud. She can’t find any charm in his scruffy edges.
There’s no easy way into this conversation, and Mira does admirably not to belabor it. “I fell in love with someone,” she says. It’s unassailably true, and yet she’s embarrassed by the strength of her conviction. “It sounds stupid,” she adds.
The details tumble out quickly. Poli is a 29-year-old Israeli CEO whose start-up has been acquired by Mira’s firm. He’s single. He’s not “an intellectual,” as Mira puts it. She feels guilty, but the affair has been good for her, she says. And how didn’t Jon notice any change in her when she feels so profoundly different from the inside? This is not the conversation you have with the husband you’re leaving; this is the one you have with yourself beforehand. Mira avoids the only question that matters at this point: What happens next?
When Jon finally drags it out of her, the plan is astonishing. Mira’s moving to Tel Aviv with Poli tomorrow, and they’ll be gone for at least three months. It’s dramatic and cruel. She’s asking Jon to process his heartbreak alone under the full glare of their four-year-old daughter to help Ava bear the long absences between Mira’s bi-monthly visits. He can stay in the house, of course. And, of course, she’ll pay for extra babysitting. It’s a tremendous ask, and yet Mira never quite asks it. “I’m leaving you,” she’ll bark later. “I’m not leaving her.” In the near term, though, they’ll both feel discarded. Why does it have to be tomorrow? Jon wants to know. Why not the day after that or next week? Because if Mira doesn’t leave this life right this very second, she’s afraid she may never. And also because Poli wants to fly tomorrow. She has a new moon.
Is the best way to end a marriage abruptly or gradually? Mira has wanted this for so long that she’s impatient for the conversation to be finished. She’s not just someone asking for a divorce but someone who can’t believe she still has to, that the reality of her life is so far behind how she feels. She doesn’t want to argue or explain or recriminate. She just wants to leave. Jon tidies the kitchen and turns out the lights on the last normal day of his life as he knows it. He locks the front door against whatever’s out there, but the house is already caving in.
Upstairs, Jon and Mira keep talking in the bedroom, but there’s hardly a moment when Mira’s resolve falters. She doesn’t want to go to therapy or to “try.” And she’s willing to land some heavy blows. She’s been thinking about leaving for eight months, she tells him. Ouch. She didn’t get the abortion to save their marriage but to keep the exit clear: “I was terrified if I had another kid that I could never leave,” she says. She tells him that she’s checked her own pulse to prove she’s alive and finally that she’s just not attracted to him anymore.
Jon rarely speaks or needs to. Mira puts the words in his mouth. She’s “spoiled” and “pathetic,” he must think. She’s leaving Jon because she still wants “passion,” though it mortifies her to use the word in front of him. They may have problems no couples therapist could solve, but they also have some problems a therapist could. They make assumptions about each other’s inner lives. For example, Mira insists Jon could never forgive her for this betrayal. Crucially, she doesn’t want to be forgiven.
When Jon does interject, he mostly wants facts. How did they meet? At a party. What’s he look like? Tall. How did it happen? Poli liked that she didn’t need to please everyone. Jonathan wants a forensic accounting of the emotional, the physical, even the geographical. Who’s hotel room? What then? Jon and Mira started having sex again around the same time she met Poli. Does he know that? Jon asks, desperate to keep a slice of her.
The acting is impeccably delicate, and the long scenes rise above their unavoidable clichés. Breaking up when nothing is wrong is itself a cliché. Perhaps the most worn-out cliché is Mira’s insistence that dissolving her family is what’s best for them all. Jon will be happier with someone new, and Ava will be happier when her mom has more patience. The series draws a savvy distinction between why a person leaves a marriage and how a person convinces themselves to leave a marriage. Mira is making a fundamentally selfish choice — not necessarily the wrong choice. But to get herself out the door, she convinces herself it’s for the common good, that divorce is a transaction without winners and losers.
“Poli” is two halves of a conversation separated by a few hours of sleep. It barely progresses, just coils deeper into itself. Mira sobs when the lights go out. When Jon stops holding her, she follows him across the bed. These are maybe their last touches. Is it better to linger and let the news sink in with the morning? How do you reach the end of the end?
Mira wakes up and indiscriminately empties drawers into a giant Bric suitcase, stuffing in dresses still on their wooden hangers while muttering to herself. I’ve never seen anyone pack this way. The case won’t close. Jonathan, who has been watching, takes the items off the bulky hangers and folds them for her. His need to be well-behaved is almost pathological. Personally, I’d be more inclined to empty a tube of toothpaste into her knee-high boots than negotiate with her reluctant zipper. He needs Mira to see that she’s leaving a good guy.
Waiting on an Uber, Jon takes his wife into an excruciating hug that she fights her way out of. When she’s finally gone, he allows himself a breakdown. He muffles his screams with his fists. He calls Peter and Kate, who knew about the affair, and screams at them, too. And then Ava appears at the foot of the stairs with her mother’s red hair. Mira is free; Jon is on duty.
In Bergman’s miniseries, it’s the father who leaves for Paris. The gender flip in Hagai Levy’s version has been characterized as an updated retelling, but to what end it remains unclear. In the year 2021, it’s certainly still more scandalous for the woman to walk out. But when you flip so many facets of the relationship — Mira’s the breadwinner, Jon the primary caregiver — the departure from the original is mitigated. In the sense that Jon is clearing the plates, arranging the carpool, and generally performing responsibilities familiar from cinematic depictions of mothering, the “mother” hasn’t left.
Even more interesting, I think, is what Levy’s retained from Bergman’s leaving episode. Liv Ullman’s Marianne, upon learning her husband is in love with a young academic called Paula, can’t believe she didn’t notice: “Everything’s been just like usual.” That line of thinking still belongs to the woman in 2021, but now it’s a test the marriage failed. “Well, that right there might be a sign of something, right?” Mira suggests to Jon. Attention and observation are chiefly feminine concerns. And neither Mira nor Erland Josephson’s Johan are at all willing to negotiate their hasty departures, though they both feel deep shame. Regardless of gender, they’ve reached a place where shame is no longer an ethical limit; the call to leave is louder and more urgent.
With this much in common between the depictions, why does Bergman’s rendering leave me feeling pained for Marianne and Levy’s leave me cold and out of sorts? The closest I’ve come to understanding why is identifying my own gendered assumption that women only leave by necessity. To my mind, Johan wants to go; Mira has to. Johan will maybe come back, as Marianne suggests; Mira can’t. From the moment she breaks out of her husband’s embrace and into the cold, it’s impossible to imagine her back in the house.