Scenes From A Marriage had a bumpy start last week, with Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain’s two marrieds setting up a lot of baggage for viewers, but not a lot of intrigue for what is to become of them. While this week’s instalment starts to knock down some of the chips that that sluggish first episode set up, the series continues to have an unsatisfying, frustrating relationship with Ingmar Bergman’s version. And it continues to lean in to its most clunky innovation: its behind-the-scenes structure that shows us the cast and crew preparing for filming.
“Poli” begins by following Isaac to set this time. In a bid to make me go completely mad with this opening device, the actor is overhead directly mentioning Bergman’s original to director Hagai Levi. Once again, this version is only inviting comparison to its predecessor. But even more frustrating, we are left asking why we are seeing behind the curtain and, again, it cheapens the drama that follows, casting the performances from Isaac and Chastain with a shadow of dress up that undercuts the quality of their work. Why is Levi still doing this?
If it is meant as a call back to Bergman’s roots in the theater, it is clumsy as hell. If it is to show how the series was accomplished under covid protocols, it is wildly unnecessary. If it is supposed to provide a metaphor for how marriage requires a level of “performance,” it simply does not work. But if in every marriage there are unbreakable habits left to be accepted, then in this marriage between series and viewer, this creative decision may just have to be the show’s version of chewing with its mouth open.
The episode really begins with Mira returning early from a business trip, months after we’ve last seen her. With Ava asleep, Jonathan begins apologizing for a fight over a possible renovation of their attic. She’s not really in the conversation, holding on to her wine for dear life. The show has already given us great Wine Acting, but Chastain grasping her chalice like a security blanket here is spectacular, foretelling the real fight that is about to come. Over cold, sauceless pasta and leftover wine, Mira reveals that she has been having an affair with a business associate from Tel Aviv, the Poli of the episode’s title.
And here Scenes From A Marriage inverts the source material in its first major way: Mira is the one who has the affair instead of Jonathan; she isn’t playing Liv Ullman’s Marianne, she’ll be taking on the role of Erland Josephson’s Johan. Conceptually, I can’t admit I didn’t see this coming. But this flipping of roles does promise a more interesting dynamic for these specific actors to play, if not a way to update the material with significance toward what it means to be married today. Is Levi’s perception of the culture of modern marriage simply that now women can have affairs too? Again, Mira and Jonathan aren’t emblematic of anything but themselves; whereas Bergman’s creation spawned vigorous debate around feminism’s evolving role in marriage, this effort is still struggling to observe anything beyond the confines of one relationship.
What follows is a torrent of expunged anxieties coming from Mira unable to stay contained any longer, and a tour de force performance from Chastain. Her performance has been building to this revelation, planting warning signs in the first episode with all of Mira’s nonstop hand wringing and halting speech. We had felt the overwhelming sense that she was holding back a decade’s worth of unspoken discomfort, and Mira spills fast and furious here. The fight bounces between undefined logistics of Mira’s moving to Tel Aviv for several months, how the abortion confirmed her feelings of being trapped, and her self-sublimation to satisfy Jonathan. As she describes it, Mira was liberated with Poli before they even had sex.
Chastain is precise in playing Mira’s incongruousness, making sense of her conversational jolts of panic and release, and not in a straight line. Her performance wields swings that believably portray the kind of argument emotional arc that only makes sense if you are a participant, with Isaac matching her messy, arhythmic sincerity with controlled outrage. Even with Levi’s beige staginess here, it’s exhausting in the way fights such as this are, and naturally it ends with both Mira and Jonathan essentially throwing in a towel and going to bed.
He holds her as she weeps “I’m so ashamed.” But it isn’t just the affair that she’s talking about here; it’s the whole of what she has expressed in this fight, that their love for one another wasn’t enough to make her express her feelings or sustain her through her depression. This note is perhaps the most painfully specific one in Chastain’s performance in “Poli”: the shame of failure under the blinding gaze of the one who knows you most. In a night of confessions with slippery tangibility, it’s the most concrete thing she has expressed. And despite this clarity, Chastain still plays Mira without an awareness of how her long-festered depression might be fueling her decisions. It’s maybe Chastain’s most finely layered and rigorously emotionally intelligent work in the past decade.
They awake to a different kind of shame, the queasiness of a fight’s hangover. Too exposed to say much, they both methodically begin morning routines in the bathroom and Mira begins to pack a suitcase with the grace of a bulldozer. Instinctively reacting to an opportunity to both maintain control and apply a Band-Aid to Mira’s needs, Jonathan takes over her packing with dissociative ease. Or maybe he is just slowing her down, buying time for her to change her mind with another round of arguing. She doesn’t, however, steadfast in her now-or-never resolve, willing to throw one last hurtful comment as an attempt to get him to stand down: “I’m not attracted to you anymore. How do you fix that?” It rings false for both of them, and after one last dire embrace, she’s gone.
Until now, Jonathan has maintained composure, with Isaac playing his cold questioning with a charged intensity as his certainties about himself and his marriage steadily crumble. He calls Kate and Peter to rant about their betrayal in not telling him about the affair. Finally, Jonathan explodes too.
Except Ava witnesses this breakdown. Like her prophetic “it’s over” in the premiere, one of her seemingly throwaway lines at the beginning of an episode proves loaded: anxious over Mira’s return and unassuaged by Jonathan’s bedtime assurances, she had asked “How do you know she’s going to be here?” Ava is one of the most interesting small changes Levi and Herzog have made to the material, almost a Greek chorus of one. Whereas Bergman left his couple’s children as more of a construct to the marriage than a tangible presence seen beyond the opening moments, this version employs the child as a reflection of their delusions and what they most take for granted, and she’s hiding in plain sight.
- The other woman in the original was named Paula, and here he is Poli, a non-subtle play on “polyamory.” We get it, girl, we get it.
- The marks we see on Mira’s back are a strange thing to leave so undefined, given the kind of emotional self-flagellation she has been through. I couldn’t help worry she was self-harming, even though her demure response when Jonathan notices also suggests her sex life with Poli.
- Mira makes a lot of sense in her frustrations with Jonathan’s badgering to understand his wrongdoing in their marriage, and this dynamic succeeds almost entirely because of Isaac’s subtle portrayal of Jonathan’s well-intended myopia.
- Jonathan, on seeing a photo of Poli: “He’s tall.” Here’s your reminder that Oscar Isaac is a goldilocks-approved height of 5’9”.
- A perfect representation of how their marriage actually works: after Mira’s “I’m so ashamed,” he gives her a tender pat, and they roll over for her to embrace and comfort him.
- What is this magic coffee machine Mira and Jonathan own that makes a cup of coffee in ten seconds and how bad for the environment is it?
- The call to Peter and Kate has to be an ironic pain to Jonathan undercutting the more obvious betrayal, given his judgment of how their marriage practice functions.