Scenes from a Marriage
The opening moments of Scenes From a Marriage happen, distractingly, outside of the scenes from the marriage. We see the series’s stars arriving to set, Jessica Chastain trading her own wedding rings for her character’s; these handheld fragments — intrusive, rocky — tend to emphasize the COVID-preparedness of the production. I found it confusing at first and later relieving. The premiere of Scenes From a Marriage is a series of real-time conversations the characters have all had before, grounded in beliefs they have no interest in revising; the only decisions they make onscreen are about what cryptic or exhausted thing they’ll say to each other next. It’s unrelenting. When it was over, I was obliged for those early moments that underscored the artifice: These tense, beautiful people are only pretending. When I turn the TV off, quickly, before the credits even finish, it all stops existing.
Scenes From a Marriage is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 six-part television miniseries of the same name — a show that became notorious for doubling the Swedish divorce rate. (According to the Bergman Foundation, the director had to de-list his telephone number to avoid calls from viewers seeking marriage advice.) That series was eventually released in the U.S. in a shorter theatrical version, and now it’s been remade for HBO by The Affair co-creator Hagai Levi. The plot points in the first episode are the same as in the original; names and details have been updated as the times demand.
For example, when we meet Mira (Chastain subbed in for Bergman’s ex-lover Liv Ullman playing Marianne), she’s sending a text message from the upstairs bathroom, a modern shorthand for distress. She lives in a nice house that’s adorned with traditional furniture and muted paint colors from Farrow & Ball. Her 4-year-old is watching the British television comedy Wallace and Gromit, and I imagine there are tote bags from NPR and PBS in some closet, thank-you gifts for annual pledges. We know Mira and her husband, Jonathan (the rumpled and pit-sniffing Oscar Isaac), are good parents who limit screen time because their daughter, Ava, has yet to figure out how to override the parental controls and start another episode. Jon is a professor at Tufts; Mira is a tech exec. They live in Boston, likely Cambridge. Their walls are just the right amount of nicked; their art is unchallenging but well-framed.
When Mira comes downstairs, she’s greeted by a psych grad student there to interview the couple for her work on gender norms and monogamy. In the Bergman original, the couple was the subject of an obsequious magazine feature on successful marriage — an intriguing update. What Bergman deemed a topic for journalistic veneration, however ironically, is 50 years later apt to be studied. The researcher tells Mira and Jon that the average American marriage lasts 8.2 years; at ten years married, they’re outliers fit for the microscope.
Mira squirms under the lens, but Jon is an eager volunteer. Asked to define himself, he fires off attributes: man, Jewish (raised Modern Orthodox, he left his faith after college), father, Democrat, academic, 41-year-old, asthmatic. He doesn’t say “husband.” Mira feeds off his cues and answers in the same fashion: wife, 40, VP of whatever, mother. She says “mother” twice. We learn a little more about their home life — Mira is the breadwinner, Jon is seemingly happy to watch Ava. They met as undergrads in New York, just like the Juilliard classmates playing them on TV.
Years after their initial meeting in a literature class, after Jon stopped wearing his yarmulke and after Mira had suffered through “borderline abusive” relationships with bad men, they fell in love. They became roommates when Mira first moved to Boston and a couple when an ER doctor confused them for newlyweds after treating Jon for an asthma attack. They made a game of the mistake that they never stopped playing. It’s not that Jon was what Mira wanted; she says he’s what she wanted to be. He had “values and purpose.”
It becomes clear that Jon volunteered for the study to nullify its premises, like rejecting the concept of a “successful” marriage. Talking about marriage in market terms invites industries geared toward optimization — coaches, therapists, books, seminars, cruises. This is love under capitalism. Jon sees marriage as a means for having kids, feeling secure, pursuing meaningful work outside the home; passion is the snake oil for sale in the self-help section. Mira prefers Jonathan to do the talking, but eventually, she sketches her own portrait of marriage as “an equilibrium.” It keeps itself in check during the early years when the partnership feels invulnerable; later, the balance needs constant attention when you realize how fragile it is. You get the sense she’s doing most of the recalibrating herself.
When the researcher finally asks them about their monogamy, stilted laughter is the only answer. They haven’t thought much about it. That their couple friends Kate and Peter laugh uproariously when they hear about the question is more telling. They can’t imagine Jon and Mira without monogamy, though I’d be curious if they can even imagine them having sex with each other. Why are people faithful to one another? Because they’re so in love? Because self-denial is a measure of love?
Something’s up between Kate and Peter, but he doesn’t want to talk about it in front of their friends, and she can’t think about anything else. Her boyfriend, whom she loves, broke up with her. They’re the foil to Mira and Jonathan, maintaining their marriage by eliminating the expectation of monogamy in the first place. As their argument grows louder, Mira plays social chaperone, bringing Kate upstairs to resettle her. Alone, the women debate the role of passion in a happy life. Kate shares she has “outbursts of hatred” for Peter, but she also is more attracted to him than she ever was; Mira, meanwhile, is merely irked by Jon’s ritual of pushing the bottles and the lotions to the perimeter of the bathroom vanity. She sounds singularly bourgeois when she tells Kate to “rethink” the “arrangement,” then apologizes for the judgmental scolding. Mira’s having a hard day, too, but doesn’t elaborate. Everyone’s drunk. Kate kisses her on the mouth; it’s nothing. Everyone’s drunk. No one can say over the course of a dinner what love is or should be in 2021, just like they couldn’t when Bergman tried in 1973 or Raymond Carver a decade after that.
Later in bed, Mira finally reveals the reason for her distractedness, her aloofness. She’s pregnant. They didn’t plan for it. The covert texting from the bathroom was with her doctor. But Jon and Mira can’t get on the same page about the pregnancy or even how to talk about the pregnancy. They try to tease each other’s feelings so they can peg their responses to what the other wants to hear. It’s not honest, no, but it’s motivated by caring. They don’t want to hurt each other or hurt each other’s ideas of each other. This is how a marriage maintains its balance, it seems, with small movements and half-truths. Jon can’t accept that Mira “doesn’t know” how she feels and even suggests that, subconsciously, she missed her birth-control pills to realize her old dream of two kids. He wants to have the baby, he finally spits out.
It’s remarkable that 50 years after the original series aired, this still scene feels so fresh: a married couple with means discussing abortion within the marriage. (It’s interesting to note that in the 1974 U.S. theatrical release of Bergman’s original, the pregnancy and the abortion plot are removed entirely; this is the world that Roe v. Wade was decided into.) But the first two years after Ava’s birth were hard for them; there’s a suggestion, I’m pretty sure, that Mira suffered from postnatal depression or possibly worse. They can’t even talk about the facts of their lives with frankness. “It’s painful wanting something and not wanting it at the same time,” she tells Jon forebodingly. Still, by lights out, they’ve talked themselves round to a modest home renovation to make space for their new addition. Of course, happily married couples have more babies.
But something changes in the intervening week, and the next time we see Mira and Jon, they’re at the doctor for an abortion. This time, Jon’s the one fidgety and ill at ease. He arrives late and immediately leaves the exam room to get a soda. Is he afraid of the medical-ness of their decision or the decision itself? Is he afraid of what he might say if he sits there holding Mira’s hand, or what Mira might say to him? He clearly doesn’t want the abortion; it’s just that the abortion is what’s right. It’s how their marriage stays the same. Mira offers that they could still renovate his office, which feels like a genuine and kind bid to manufacture a kind of momentum for their lives. But after she takes the pill that will end the pregnancy, she asks to be alone. She sobs because she had an abortion or because she wanted to have an abortion, or because she’s living this lovely life and can’t figure out how to like it.
For a series that happens almost entirely in sustained dialogue, what Chastain and Isaac achieve across the hour strikes me as athletic. Every movement matters. The way feet shuffle, the way dishes are cleared and wine is poured. If the conversation never ends, the life of the household needs to happen in the background. Jon and Mira are far apart and growing farther, but how do you show that between two people who refuse to be unkind to each other, who refuse to ignore each other’s questions? I don’t know, and yet, in the premiere of Scenes From a Marriage, I watched it happen.