Most episodes of HBO’s new limited series Scenes From a Marriage begin with an odd meta device, where we are watching stars Jessica Chastain or Oscar Isaac arriving on set, interacting with crew members who are wearing full Covid protective gear, studying dialogue and notes on their phones, and getting into character. There’s usually not even an edit in between someone calling “Action!” and when the scene itself begins.
Why did Hagai Levi, the acclaimed Israeli-born TV creator (Be’Tipul, The Affair), choose these distracting behind-the-scenes glimpses as his way into adapting Ingmar Bergman’s landmark 1973 Swedish miniseries? All but the youngest viewers go into fictional stories aware that they feature actors who are playing roles with the help of a director and other people, but this setup only underscores the non-reality of Scenes, which is otherwise performed and filmed in a naturalistic style. Perhaps reminding viewers that Chastain and Isaac are acting is the point? This new Scenes — in which we witness the crumbling of the relationship between Chastain’s Mira and Isaac’s Jonathan — can be hell to sit through across most of its five hours. Yet as a showcase for the deep talents and remarkable chemistry of its stars, it can be one hell of a thing.
In 1973, Bergman was breaking new ground in using the miniseries format to explore the minutiae of how two people could fall out of love over a long period of time, and how they would learn to deal with each other as they emerged from the wreckage. But the miniseries — or even the condensed, three-hour feature film version that was released outside of Sweden — was so influential, and has been so often imitated in ways big and small, that the novelty factor is long gone. What’s left is a brutal, relentless portrait of two people tearing each other apart emotionally — sometimes with screamed insults, at others with a casual aside that cuts even deeper — practically from the first moment we get to know them.
Throwing viewers into the deep end of the pool with Mira and Jonathan is among the remake’s tougher obstacles. Many of Bergman’s creative descendants didn’t put their couples through psychological warfare until after the audience first gained a chance to see them in better times — or, at least to know them well enough to appreciate how they came to this toxic point. The famous Sopranos episode where Carmela kicks Tony out of the house, for instance, came after four seasons of seeing all the reasons why she should do so. The most recent season of Master of None chronicled the end of a marriage that was brand new to the series, but at least viewers were already invested in Lena Waithe’s Denise. Scenes in theory begins in happy times for its central couple, who are being interviewed by a psychology student (at the university where Jonathan teaches philosophy) about why their marriage has outlasted the national average, and whether tech executive Mira’s role as breadwinner has helped keep them together. Later in the first episode, they host a pair of bitter married friends (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie) who clearly should not be together anymore, and Mira and Jonathan look on it as a contrast to how well their own dynamic seems to be working. But it’s clear from early in the psych interview that their marriage rests on a very shaky foundation, and could come tumbling down with barely any effort at all.
“This isn’t anyone’s fault!” Mira will argue later. “It’s just the way that it is.” But beginning the story at a stage when things are already falling apart is a difficult ask, for both the audience and for the stars, who have to keep recontextualizing the relationship with stories they tell about ostensibly happier times. When Mira suggests that she and Jonathan can’t be in the same room without hurting each other, it seems as if this has always been the case, and it just took forever for one of them to admit it.
Fortunately, the work Chastain and Isaac do here is pretty spectacular, in both the showy moments where Mira or Jonathan is going for the throat and in the subtler ones where they’re just recoiling from the latest verbal grenade their partner has tossed. The action is largely confined to the interior of the couple’s beautiful Massachusetts home, with just the two leads talking to each other (often while their anxious daughter sleeps in a nearby room), so the former A Most Violent Year co-stars get abundant opportunity to spar and test each other. They are raw and intensely physical — one episode has Mira crying while hidden under a sheet, and Chastain’s body language is so readable that you don’t need to see her face at all — and periodically conjure the heat they had together in better days. Over the weekend, a clip of Isaac lustfully stroking Chastain’s arm on the red carpet at the Venice International Film Festival went viral, which may have seemed ironic for two actors promoting a show about a couple who can’t stand to be together anymore. But the series offers more instances than you might expect that make their red carpet shenanigans feel like truth in advertising.
Is next-level acting enough to justify such punishing subject matter? At times, absolutely. The third episode in particular is just remarkable in the way Mira and Jonathan’s conversation somehow takes us through every high and low they ever had together. Other episodes can sometimes take on the detached tone of an exchange being read from a court transcript, but in this installment, the old wounds feel raw and very much present.
But then, Scenes is littered with turns where its central duo are agonizingly close to finding a way to make things work again, only for the opportunity to slip from their grasps. That third episode was among the best hours of TV I’ve seen all year, and left me wondering if I had judged the whole endeavor too harshly to that point. But then the remaining two episodes brought a more familiar blend of moments that inspired awe, right next to ones that inspired eye-rolls.
At various points, Jonathan or Mira will plead with the other to give things another try, insisting that the parts of their marriage that were good outweigh the parts where they’re literally wishing their partner dead. The experience of watching Scenes From a Marriage never gets that bleak, but I won’t blame anyone who decides that Chastain and Isaac — even both at the tip-top of their respective acting games — aren’t enticement enough to commit to a short-term viewing relationship that can feel punishingly long.
Scenes From a Marriage premieres September 12th on HBO, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all five episodes.