The Spool / Reviews
HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage tests the ties that bind

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain wring brutal truths from the complexities of matrimony in this update of the Ingmar Bergman classic.

A man stands in his living room, bent double and screaming into his closed fists. The pain is so new he’s still discovering just how deep it goes, bewildered and terrified to feel that the wound goes all the way into the bone. Watching from the floor of my office as I paint Halloween decorations, I could feel old scars tingling as the wounds under them sang remember that moment? Remember how it felt?

Hagai Levi isn’t the first to bring Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes From A Marriage into the 21st Century—he’s not even the first to do it this year, with Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari’s quiet and memorable third season of Master of None. But where Master’s third season was quietly and deeply poignant, the new Scenes is stark and brutal. Yet both manage such a complex and beautiful grace note by the end that you’re almost—almost—ready to forgive how devastating the earlier episodes are. 

Each installment of the five-part limited series begins with the backstage setup, seeing leads Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain taking last-second peeks at the script as the makeup is touched up and places are set. It’s almost as though Levi is telling the audience “remember, this is all made up. They’re actors. This is a sound stage. None of it is real.” The reminder is necessary because once cameras are rolling, the illusion of illusion dissipates. 

Scenes From a Marriage (HBO)
Scenes From a Marriage (HBO)

Isaac portrays Jonathan, a professor, and husband to Chastain’s Mira, who works in the tech industry and is the breadwinner of the family. Like Bergman’s Scenes, the series begins with Jonathan and Mira being interviewed (here by grad student Sunita Mani) about their marriage. Both Mira’s tension and Jonathan’s enthusiasm paint a clear enough picture of the dynamics between the couple.

Neither partner actually sees the other, though they clearly love each other, they’ve forgotten how to exist as individuals and as part of a larger whole. Later, when having dinner with friends Peter (Corey Stoll) and Kate (an always-welcome Nicole Beharie) you can see both Jonathan and Mira thinking thank god that isn’t us, neither seeing what the audience sees, that the road ahead has caved in. 

Scenes takes us through a lot in those first few episodes. Mira’s unexpected pregnancy and subsequent abortion, Jonathan’s codependency, an affair, and brutal separation. Chastain and Isaac’s visible onscreen chemistry transforms into grotesque animosity until Mira and Jonathan finally do begin to see the other for who they really are.

So much of Scenes is about the notion that people don’t stop growing once they’ve reached a certain age or status.

So much of Scenes is about the notion that people don’t stop growing once they’ve reached a certain age or status. You can be a married adult, a parent, a success in your chosen field and still grow, still change, still discover previously unknown truths about yourself. 

The other lesson left to impart here is that no matter how commonplace divorce is, you never realize how painful, how baffling a process it is to go through. Years of therapy after my first marriage ended made me understand things about myself and my former partner that I was too close to see at the time. Yet two hours into Scenes I felt some of those old hurts resurfacing, the drama unfolding on screen too real, too lifelike for comfort. Maybe that’s what makes Levi’s take so beautiful, so devastating, and so memorable.

If there’s any great statement to Scenes From A Marriage, it’s that that love is not exempt from change, that permanence is illusory, and that even the deepest pain can eventually be examined, understood, and forgiven. 

Scenes From a Marriage premieres on HBO September 12th.

Scenes From a Marriage Trailer: