By now you have seen the video of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain on the Venice Film Festival red carpet, his smoldering stare cascading into adorable affection between them both, all in slow motion. Go watch it again, it’s a gift that keeps on giving—it also serves as a strong preamble to what works best in their new limited series. From the very beginning, HBO’s Scenes From A Marriage showcases that chemistry and ease between them, but isn’t always that compelling beyond their shared ferocity.
Based on the landmark Swedish miniseries from Ingmar Bergman (currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, along with the abbreviated film version, the latter of which is also available on HBO Max), this series attempts a tall order. The original has influenced the likes of Before Midnight, Marriage Story, and now this remake starring the former Juilliard buddies and A Most Violent Year costars. Here, Chastain and Isaac play Mira and Jonathan, a couple at the beginning of their disintegration. Less of a reimagining than a reanimating of Bergman’s text with a few twists, The Affair creator Hagai Levi’s version is off to a mild and confusing start.
The confusion comes from how Levi begins the series: a behind-the-scenes glimpse following Chastain from a dressing room, through a bustling soundstage with enforced COVID protocols, arriving at her mark on set. Is the stylistic choice designed to make us active participants not only in the drama but in the production, perhaps to further invite us to see ourselves in Mira and Jonathan? Are we supposed to enter the drama as thrown as Mira is during the interview that kicks off the episode? Is this merely showy affectation for its own sake?
To begin the action with this artifice feels highly self-aware and stagy, like Bergman’s script is being given a Vanya On 42nd Street treatment by theater people hanging out and performing a beloved text. The opening doesn’t exactly break the fourth wall or acknowledge the audience, but immediately upends the realism it is trying to create through raw performances in lengthy, real-time observation. Levi doesn’t clue us in early to his intentions but each episode will feature this device, and I’ll have more to say on it later.
We’re given a lot of early background on the couple by way of an interview they give to a PhD student (Sunita Mani). Turns out when they first met, Jonathan was kind of a square and she was direct; now it appears that he is... still kind of a square and she is less revealing, to say the least. Chastain fascinates us early with Mira’s evasiveness, clearly holding back at every innocuous question by providing canned responses with physical discomfort. You can’t really blame her when she’s immediately asked to “define” herself and her marriage (especially when it seems so easy for Jonathan), but the scene cuts short at her nonplussed response (and Jonathan’s amusement) at an inquiry to their sexual exclusivity.
Stories about heterosexual couples adore obsessing over monogamy, as if fidelity or lack thereof is the most fascinating, tension-filled thing about a relationship instead of how a marriage actually functions. Scenes From A Marriage thankfully allows Mira and Jonathan more layers to their issues than that, but Bergman wasn’t merely concerned with fidelity. His version resonates because it asks bigger and more open-ended questions about the nature of love, gender roles, and societal demands; this episode instead touches these topics in surface details, like mentioning the industry of marriage advice tools and having a PhD student say they are studying gender roles and monogamy. The new series even invites the question what Levi and his co-writer Amy Herzog will bring to this material that reexamines those ideas in today’s setting 50 years later.
This first episode leaves that question unanswered until the arrival of Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll as Kate and Peter, Mira and Jonathan’s also married friends. Suddenly the show has its first fresh insight into today’s shifting rules of marriage: Kate and Peter are in an open relationship, enduring a rough patch because Peter is taking it personally that Kate is heartbroken over a breakup with a boyfriend. The difference here from the original is that Kate and Peter are committed to the arrangement despite the hurdles, whereas previously this was a couple at each other’s throats and bound to each other by professional objection; it’s a nuanced difference, but an important one. However, wine leads to an uncomfortable argument and Kate and Mira break off upstairs, where Kate lets it all out to a supportive but guarded Mira.
Much as Bibi Andersson gave a brief and thrilling performance as Kate’s counterpart in the Bergman original, Beharie is on fire here. Kate is a fascinating character, not only for her perspective on her open marriage but for the insight Beharie provides in her brief time with us. Beharie allows her to be vulnerable but self-preservational, leading to a kiss with Mira that feels inevitable but also a harmless bit of support that Mira doesn’t receive. Perhaps it serves the tension that Beharie’s performance is more natural and relaxed, awakening the episode with some sense of real life. But just as Andersson disappears after her one-episode acting showcase, so does Beharie.
The rest of “Innocence And Panic” deferentially follows the original’s first chapter: we discover that Mira’s anxiousness during the interview was (at least, partly) stirred by discovering she is pregnant, and the couple discusses whether to continue the pregnancy or get an abortion. Mira’s journey with postpartum depression after her first pregnancy is a factor in the decision, a nuance that does feel intensely contemporary, given how reductive the reasons to end a pregnancy are portrayed by those who demonize it in America and with great consequences at the current moment.
Like Bergman’s couple did, Mira and Jonathan decide on an abortion. It’s important to see that the decision and procedure themselves aren’t traumatic, but what the abortion does underline is the lack of honesty and communication between them that has brought them to this moment in their marriage. Jonathan is all supportive resolve, keeping himself from submitting to a crack of emotion as he gets her something from the vending machine. Mira asks for privacy, and finally crumbles under the tension that has been obviously mounting all episode. But as their unspoken inner conflict manifests physically, we haven’t yet learned what’s really in their minds. In hindsight, Ava’s interruption during their interview feels prophetic in a way they couldn’t understand: “It’s over.” And before they realized it.
“Innocence And Panic” is a sluggish start despite the ace performances from Chastain, Isaac, and Beharie. So far, it feels less that the show is keeping us at arm’s length from revealing their interiority (even despite plenty of precise character detail) than it is trying to figure out what to do with it. Levi is struggling to not only examine what marriage means today, but also how Mira and Jonathan are emblematic of something more than themselves. If this new series wants to chase the original, it’s going to have to develop a point of view on the minutiae and complications of their relationship and what those tangles represent. Otherwise, Scenes From A Marriage will just be strong performances adrift in memories of what made the source material more special.
- Mira dated a guy in college who was in a band named Saraband, the title of the original Scenes’ sequel and Bergman’s final film. References! Awareness! What was their big song called? “Hour Of The Wolf”?
- Sunita Mani, we will return you to the glory of GLOW.
- Jessica Chastain sometimes looks so similar to Bergman’s star Liv Ullman that it’s spooky. It’s probably not an intentional callback to the original considering Michelle Williams was originally cast…
- Mira and Jonathan are given two of those kind of professions you never have to elaborate on for a character: “tech™!” and philosophy professor. No further questions!
- Do we really think this is the first time Mira and Kate have kissed? It’s out in the open that one marriage is open and the other is not, but I have questions about how long they have known each other.
- No thoughts, just Oscar Isaac’s salt and pepper curls.