During this year’s Venice Film Festival, social media went into a thirsty frenzy. A slow-mo shot of Oscar Isaac kissing Jessica Chastain's arm on the red carpet went viral. Of course, everyone went mad. Despite the actors being married to other people, the enthusiasm shows their natural chemistry as friends and co-workers (having known each other since college).
They were there for other reasons, obviously: promoting the HBO series remake of Ingmar Bergman’s lauded miniseries Scenes From a Marriage. But that same warmth on the red carpet illuminates their performances in the series, co-written and directed by Hagai Levi with such naturalistic space and patience.
Scenes is five episodes, roughly an hour each, and mostly observes one fractured couple inside one house. A lack of connection between the two leads would’ve made the whole structure crumble. Thankfully the series stands with Chastain and Isaac as the foundations, even if their characters' marriage is about to collapse.
The first four episodes open with the actors playing themselves, walking to the film set and preparing for their scenes. Already, you’re taken to a more metatextual place than Bergman's 1973 original. Yet despite these Brechtian turns, Scenes appears faintly predictable at first.
Episode one starts on an awkward note, as the not-so-happy couple – the academic Jonathan (Isaac) and tech manager Mira (Chastain) – are interviewed by a student about gender dynamics in marriage. When the student asks about their preferred pronouns, Jonathan finishes Mira’s answer. He arrogantly, continuously, talks over her, as if he wants to prove something. The irony is, even given his attempts to dominate the conversation, Mira is the family breadwinner.
Everything seems to be in place. A patronised wife is trying to break away, to become independent from an oppressive, micro-aggressive husband. Divorce is inevitable. Team Mira all the way, etc. But since there are four episodes left to go, it’s a relief that Scenes pursues countless nuances and details – showing Jonathan and Mira in both decent and terrible lights, scattering your loyalties with intense ambiguity.
As each episode enters another degree of separation, the stories flex in many frustrating, contradictory directions: from laughing to crying, steamy sex to painful shouting, life-changing confessions to discussions of dry cleaners. Between the two of them, it’s a burden and a blessing to know each other so deeply. They can say the right words and wound the weak spots, but that understanding also makes revealed secrets even more devastating. So much so that those revelations take time to seep in.
Bravely, Levi stretches that time. It's occasionally too much, and this critic’s attention often drifted elsewhere. But it’s hard to imagine those slow realisations being as effective if the series were shorter. Levi provides a realistically extensive window in which to process everything. In one scene, Jonathan is eating microwaved spaghetti during one of Mira’s admissions. He continues to chew. It’s only at the end of the episode that he screams his heart out.
Married couples might be wise to avoid this one. Its authenticity leaves a lasting sting that would make even single people wonder what the point is. Mira and Jonathan’s relationship is confusing and complicated, but it speaks bleakly to a statistical certainty.
Scenes From a Marriage is too depressing and inconclusive to watch again. It’s not as exploratively accepting as the David Nicholls series Us or as immersively intelligent as Master of None: Moments in Love, but it proceeds with a curious, gradual sense of daring.
Scenes From a Marriage airs on Monday 11 October at 9pm on Sky Atlantic
|What||Scenes From a Marriage, Sky Atlantic review|
11 Oct 21 – 11 Oct 22, ON SKY ATLANTIC
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