Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Film history is anything but sacred. The HBO remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage that premiered at Venice this summer, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as the spouses in crisis, is less iconoclastic and more inevitable. The original TV series from 1973, starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, already has many descendants. Bergman himself recut it as a theatrical film and made a sequel, Saraband, three decades later. Other directors have taken inspiration too: its influence shines fiercely through Woody Allen’s films and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but also in more recent relationship dramas, from Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019) and the third season of the Netflix sitcom Master of None to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2017 Loveless, which began life as a remake of Scenes until rights difficulties forced the director to change course. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film Bergman Island, the central couple (both filmmakers) are suitably overwhelmed by the thought of spending a night in the Scenes from a Marriage bedroom. From reverent referentiality to straight-up remakes, it’s not always possible or desirable for filmmakers to ignore what has gone before.

Which is why, as critics, we’d be wrong to write off the remake. Without them, we’d have missed out on some beloved films, for one thing. No Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy was the second remake of a French film from 1935, Fanfare of Love), no His Girl Friday (the 1940 favourite was based on 1931’s The Front Page, with the genders switched) and no High Society (1956) (it’s The Philadelphia Story, 1940, but with glorious songs). Let alone two very different Nosferatus (1922 and 1979) and Scarfaces (1932 and 1983). John Huston’s 1941 noir The Maltese Falcon was adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel, but also the 1931 film. Who among us would like to be without David Cronenberg’s 1986 take on 1958’s The Fly?

Historically, there have been nefarious instances in which the original film was withdrawn from circulation to give the remake room to soar. Hawks bought The Front Page when he wanted to make His Girl Friday. When MGM planned to adapt Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, the studio insisted that all prints of the British adaptation be destroyed. As luck would have it, they failed: Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight of 1940 has been restored by the BFI and can be compared with George Cukor’s 1944 Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In hindsight, we have gained rather than lost when filmmakers put their creativity to work adapting old favourites or obscure titles with untapped potential.

A Star Is Born (1976)

When filmmakers adapt, and re-adapt, classic works of literature it seems natural. In recoiling from the remake, we’re suggesting that films don’t have the same richness and potential for multiple interpretations, the same ability to inspire across the generations, as novels and plays. Which isn’t the case, even if we stick with popular cinema. How else to explain four different versions of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976 and 2018) and the fierce arguments that arise when fans come to choose their favourites? (I think 1954 is top, then 1937, 2018 and 1976, but please don’t come for me.) Just as new adaptations of Wuthering Heights, Little Women and Shakespeare tragedies come around every generation or so, so filmmakers reimagine formative films. These adaptations and remakes form a conversation of their own: Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women stands on its own two feet but has invisible threads connecting it to versions by Gillian Armstrong (1994) and Cukor (1933), for starters.

Sometimes those threads are far from invisible. Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho is homage/exploration rather than erasure, much like Douglas Gordon’s 1993 art installation 24 Hour Psycho, which slows down the original to a suitably suspenseful two frames a second. Artists and experimental filmmakers find Hitchcock’s films especially fruitful. Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog (2017) creates a woozy miasma of misremembrances around Vertigo by patching together archive film and TV clips from elsewhere: a classic remade out of quotations from other texts.

If you’ve given me credit for resisting the familiar Jean-Luc Godard quotation so far, this is where I let you down. His dictum that the best way to criticise a film is to make another one is especially apt at this moment, when two new ‘response’ films are making hay with the legacy of his La Chinoise (1967). That’s without taking into account Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable (2017), which went behind the scenes on Godard’s filmmaking and his marriage to Anne Wiazemsky. First, Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance, which made Sight and Sound’s best films of 2020 list but has yet to be released in the UK (I saw it at IndieLisboa this summer): a deadpan communist comedy set in a Philadelphia houseshare of progressive thinkers, striving to run their household on collectivist principles and further educate themselves on socialism and Black liberation. In Godard’s film, we met a group of committed Maoists in a Paris flat, devotees of radical action and Nicholas Ray films. In both films, the groups debate fiercely and draw strength from political quotations chalked on the walls; both films are decked out in primary colours, punctuated by Brechtian flourishes and sloganeering. The second response, Just a Movement, directed by Vincent Meessen (which played at London’s Open City Documentary Festival) is a nonfiction film about the life of the revolutionary Omar Blondin Diop, who appeared in La Chinoise as himself, a ‘guest lecturer’ for the Paris firebrands. It’s a moving and illuminating counterpoint to the white, western perspective of Godard’s characters.

This is another reason to look more fondly on remakes – they’re a gateway into the world of response films, in which movies that raise big questions endure in the imaginations of other filmmakers.

Remake/remodel: 45 weird and wonderful alternative film cuts

All films exist in slightly different cuts but sometimes the alternative versions are fascinating in their own right, with entirely new scenes and different rhythms that enable them to stand on their own against the original. We pick some of the most intriguing examples.

By James Bell

Remake/remodel: 45 weird and wonderful alternative film cuts