tv review

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain Give Life to Scenes From a Marriage

It does not feel like an overstatement to say that Scenes From a Marriage lives or dies by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac’s performances. Photo: HBO

The 2021 version of Scenes From a Marriage opens with a scene that is not from a marriage. It is a long take focused initially on the back of Jessica Chastain’s head as she walks onto a set. After passing multiple masked crew members, she sits in a pretend bathroom, cell phone in hand. When “action” is called, Chastain transforms into Mira, the tech executive, wife, and mother who lives in this house, which is, for the purposes of scripted television, in a suburb of Boston and not on a soundstage.

Mira sends a text message, gazes pensively in the distance for a few beats, then eventually walks down a set of stairs and into her living room, where she sits on an emerald-green sofa next to her husband, Jonathan, played by Oscar Isaac. That’s when Scenes From a Marriage, the story of Mira, Jonathan, and the excavation of the discontent and conflict buried within their relationship, begins in earnest.

Hagai Levi, the creator, director, and writer of this update of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish miniseries, which was later condensed into a film, frames four of his five episodes like this. First we see the principal actors preparing to start filming, then the handheld photography switches to a more polished, stable single-cam shot and the “real” episode begins. (The fifth installment saves its fourth-wall shattering until later.) It’s a curious, initially jarring approach whose purpose isn’t immediately clear. Is the idea to emphasize how much focus Chastain and Isaac bring to their performances? Or do these brief glimpses of pandemic-production protocols serve as a reminder that this is a 2021 iteration of Scenes From a Marriage, one that, while paying direct homage to the original, will put a contemporary spin on Bergman’s intimate look at the fissures in a marriage?

In an interview with Variety, Levi, who co-created Showtime’s The Affair, said he decided to use the device at the last minute, to communicate that Scenes From a Marriage is “more of a fable” than a story about a specific couple. But he needn’t have bothered. Anyone who watches this extraordinarily well-acted, often affecting meditation on what bonds and divides two people will see shades of themselves and others they know in it. Like the Swedish-language Scenes, this American, made-for-HBO iteration — premiering the first of its five parts this Sunday, September 12 — is supposed to function as both a mirror and window, a reflection of recognizable, uncomfortable emotions as well as a peek into the hyperspecific idiosyncrasies and dysfunctions that define the relationship between Mira and Jonathan.

That relationship overlaps in some key ways with the situations that Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) confronted in Bergman’s work almost 50 years ago. Both pairs deal with infidelity, separation, and a complicated thicket of co-dependency that enables them to slingshot from expressions of disdain to feelings of profound tenderness. The new Scenes From a Marriage even begins in a similar vein, with Mira and Jonathan being interviewed by Danielle (Sunita Mani), a Ph.D. student at Tufts University who is studying “how evolving gender norms affect monogamous marriages.” (In the original Scenes, Marianne and Johan were interviewed by a magazine writer intent on capturing their marital bliss.)

In a way, the focus of Danielle’s research paper is basically the thesis statement for Levi’s Scenes From a Marriage. As a philosophy professor with a more flexible schedule than his high-powered wife, Jonathan is more involved in taking care of their daughter Ava, while Mira, the executive at some vague but important company, works long hours and often travels. Instead of Johan, it is Mira who has an affair and introduces the specter of divorce into their family unit. In other words: The gender norms, they have evolved.

But as much progress has been made to knock down stereotypes about the roles a man and woman play in a traditional, heterosexual, cisgender marriage, it may still hit differently with some viewers to see a woman pushing to close the door on a marriage, especially when there is a child involved. Levi deliberately challenges the audience to assess their own levels of discomfort with that, then sit in that discomfort, and ask themselves if they would respond the same way if Mira were a man.

It does not feel like an overstatement to say that Scenes From a Marriage lives or dies by Chastain and Isaac’s performances. While other actors enter the frame here and there — Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie appear in the first episode as friends of the couple who prove the point that open marriages are not necessarily more liberated than monogamous ones — this is basically a two-hander. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, the two stars make this thing live. They are each completely dialed-in and totally believable as a couple with a vast, un-erasable history whose weight can be felt in the spaces between them.

Surely the chemistry between Chastain and Isaac is bolstered by the fact that they have played spouses before, in 2014’s under-seen and excellent A Most Violent Year. When the moment calls for it, there is real, palpable heat between them. To put it another way: If you thought the way Isaac kissed Chastain’s arm on the Venice Film Festival red carpet was hot, your genitalia may burst into actual flames when you watch episode four of Scenes From a Marriage.

The actors and the series as a whole are careful not to paint Mira or Jonathan with reductive strokes. Both Chastain and Isaac play them as human beings whose edges can sharpen or soften depending on the circumstances. Shot, like the original was, in frequent close-ups and in tight spaces, the things that they don’t say to each other carry as much significance as the things they do. Some of the best character work that Chastain and Isaac do comes not in their blow-ups but in quiet moments: the careful and calm packing of a suitcase, a glance in another direction when eye contact is needed.

Certainly many of the details look and sound different in the 2021 Scenes From a Marriage: There are text messages, and Airbnbs, and generally a more hectic, distracted vibe to life than there was in the early 1970s. But the ebbs and flows of a marriage, the way that love, frustration, lust, and resentment become such a forever-tangled knot when you pledge to spend a life with someone, seem very much the same.

Maybe the message sent, intentionally or not, by the fourth-wall-breaking introductions to each of the episodes is also one that applies then as now: that even in what is supposed to be an extremely raw and real exposure of a marriage, there is still an element of performance. Even when you know someone better than anyone else in the whole world, you can only know so much.

Isaac and Chastain Give Life to Scenes From a Marriage