Each episode in the five-chapter HBO limited series “Scenes From a Marriage” actually begins behind the scenes, with the camera following either Jessica Chastain or her co-star Oscar Isaac as they arrive on a soundstage or a location set populated by dozens of mask-wearing crew members and engage in a bit of last-minute preparation before an off-screen director exclaims, “ACTION!” and the story begins.
It’s a clever technique that somehow reminds us of the beautiful artifice of filmed storytelling while also plunging us into the lives of a married couple who have been married for a decade and together for 12 years and have all the outward trappings of an American Dream romance come true, including a young daughter they both adore — yet they alternate between moments of genuine affection and love, and words and actions that will have lasting and devastating consequences today, tomorrow and for the rest of their lives.
Since the 1973 release of Ingmar Bergman’s seminal and revolutionary Swedish TV miniseries “Scenes From a Marriage” (edited into a 167-minute feature film for theatrical release in the United States), we’ve seen countless adaptations and reboots and works inspired by the original, from Woody Allen’s “Scenes From a Mall” to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy to “Revolutionary Road” to “Master of None Presents: Moments in Love” to “Marriage Story.” Writer-director Hagai Levi (Showtime’s “The Affair”) has updated the story to modern times, relocated the couple to suburban Boston and gender swapped the lead roles, but this is a full-on remake that retains much of the basic framework of Bergman’s masterpiece and carries an emotional punch that’s nearly as powerful.
Old Juilliard pals Chastain and Isaac, who teamed up so memorably in the 2014 crime noir “A Most Violent Year,” deliver a master class in tandem acting that’s as good as anything I’ve seen on any platform in 2021. Even when “Scenes From a Marriage” is emotionally brutal and tough to watch — and that’s a recurring thing — it’s impossible not to be enveloped in the moment.
When we first see Isaac’s Jonathan and Chastain’s Mira, they’re sitting on the living room sofa in their charmingly lived-in house in suburban Boston (the house is a work in progress, much like their relationship) and sitting uncomfortably for an interview with Sunita Mani’s Danielle, who explains this is “for my Ph.D. in gender studies and psych … I’m looking at how evolving gender norms affect monogamous marriages.” Well, that sounds like a fun afternoon!
As Jonathan and Mira politely and sincerely try to answer questions about who they are, how they define themselves, how they met and when they fell in love, they sometimes talk over one another, sometimes contradict one another — and clearly seem to be on different pages about issues large and small. Later that night, they host a dinner for a couple (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie) who are in an open marriage and are in the midst of a serious crisis. Other than those two early scenes and a few late-episode sequences set in outside locations, “Scenes From a Marriage” is almost exclusively set in that house over several years, as Mira and Jonathan often seem to be in separate worlds even as they occupy the same room. (Mira is a tech executive who often travels for work and makes far more money than Jonathan, a philosophy professor at Tufts. Talk about different disciplines.)
With cinematographer Andrij Parekh’s camera fluidly moving from room to room and the production design reflecting subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the house’s interiors over the years, we’re eyewitnesses to the dissolution of a marriage, with Mira confessing an affair to Jonathan, whose initially calm reaction is almost more frightening than if he had exploded with rage. Yet even when they do split, they remain connected — and not just because they have a daughter. A scene in which they’ve agreed to finalize their divorce and they meet at the house one last time before the movers arrive erupts into something fierce, funny, wildly sexual and then horrific. They’ve finally hit the point where it’s toxic just to be in the same room with one another, and that’s that — or is it?
There are times when one feels the urge to scream and shout at Mira and Jonathan to just get the hell away from one another and cease with all the analyzing and criticizing and bickering and resentment; on other occasions, you want to shake them to their senses and get them to see that through all the miscommunication and the hurtful actions and the pain, they should be partners for life. It’s complicated. It’s a marriage.