Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play a disintegrating couple in HBO’s Bergman adaptation Scenes From a Marriage.
Jojo Whilden / HBO
“I’m going to lose my mind if I don’t leave right away.” A woman drops that atomic bomb on HBOs with tearful, breathless urgency. She is a technical executive who returned early from a business trip to tell her husband, the philosophy professor, that she was leaving. “There’s nothing more to say,” she informs her shocked spouse as he follows her upstairs and asks for an explanation.
There’s everything to be said, of course, and Mira and Jonathan, in virtuoso performances by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, say a great deal about it over the course of HBO’s dialogue-intensive five-part series about the breakdown of a marriage. The series debuted at the Venice Film Festival and landed on HBO on Sunday. It is also streamed.
Current HBO hits likeand have unraveled the whys and thrillers of mysterious deaths. Scenes from a Marriage – an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s announced 1973 Swedish television miniseries that was later condensed into a theatrical release – harbors far more nuanced puzzles: love, desire, monogamy, infidelity, and the subjective nature of happiness. After all, there are few secrets as deep as the whims of the human heart.
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It takes instinct to adapt a filmmaker’s classic with Bergman’s impact, but writer and director Hagai Levi (creator of another psychological drama, Israeli TV series BeTipul, which spawned HBO’s Emmy-winning In Treatment) delivers a series that largely on their line, owning stands as a modern retelling complete with iPhones, Airbnb, and conversations about gender roles and preferred pronouns. At the same time, it honors the spirit of the original with long, tense conversations; lingering Bergman-like close-ups; and a similar muted palette. Many plot points also reflect the original, including the names of the characters, with Mira and Jonathan replacing Marianne and Johan. (Incidentally, Chastain bears a striking physical resemblance to Liv Ullman, although in this version the woman initiates the separation.)
This is a story about love breaking apart, but it’s also a story about love reconfiguring.
The HBO series, which followed the upper-middle-class couple’s relationship for several years, can feel relentlessly intense, even suffocating: don’t expect a slight pandemic distraction or even a single laugh; This is more closely related to Netflix’s scorching marriage story, another Bergman-inspired relationship drama. Levi does not provide particularly fresh insights, and five hours of marital argument is a lot to bear. But viewers who stick it out the delicate finale are likely to be rewarded in excruciatingly honest, relatable exploration of the joys and challenges of long-term relationships – and in the work of two highly skilled performers traversing exhausting, ever-changing emotional terrain. This is a story about love breaking apart, but it’s also a story about love reconfiguring.
Mira and Jonathan, 40 years old and balanced between career, parenting and household chores, live in a charming old house in Boston with their daughter Ava, who is in kindergarten. When we meet her on the first episode, they’ve been together for 10 years and seem at least better off than their pals Peter and Kate (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie), who have gone polyamorous in hopes of combating their marital boredom They don’t even try to hide their disdain for one another from their writhing hosts.
But Mira’s tense facial expression and tense body language quickly reveal a seething dissatisfaction beyond everyday domestic annoyances – and her constant, secret phone check suggests that she is writing to someone she does not want her husband to know about it. The busy, cerebral Jonathan missed the signs of their misery, Mira later tells him, but the audience won’t.
Mira and Jonathan make mistakes and try to correct them in HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage, a story about love breaking apart but also about love that endures.
Jojo Whilden / HBO
In the first few episodes, it’s easy to loathe aloof, selfish Mira for turning the life of her courteous husband upside down, who desperately wants to save the marriage. Then there is her daughter, whose world is about to break open like a glass doll that has been hit by a dresser. But we gradually understand Mira – and Jonathan – better as we learn more about the past hurts and reproaches that have drawn them.
Suspicious of love, she watched her mother get married and divorced several times. He, emotionally restrained, often felt anxious and inadequate under the relentless gaze of his dominant, judgmental father. As a young adult, he left his childhood Orthodox Judaism behind, and Mira blames his “religious hangups” for their lack of sexual fulfillment. Unsurprisingly, he has a different take on her less than sizzling sex life. “It turned out that all I needed was a woman who really wanted me for who I am,” he says during one of her many back and forth.
I wanted to know more about Mira and what motivated her to leave. Still, it is evidence of Chastain’s acting that we understand how Jonathan was able to feel so deeply drawn to Mira again, even after declaring, at the bottom of the marital crisis, “I have no more feelings for you. I’m sober. Me am vaccinated. ” Love and hate dance a gentle pas de deux.
One must attribute to the writers Levi and Amy Herzog that in the end there are no definite villains here, just flawed, complicated people trying to understand themselves and each other. The two make mistakes and try to fix them. They assess each other’s mistakes and then recognize similar mistakes in themselves.
“There is nowhere in the world where I would feel safe,” says Mira Jonathan as one of the first signs that she may finally cultivate a little self-confidence. The thrill of new lovers, promotions, and fancy new high-rise apartments won’t cure Mira’s misfortune. It has to be an inside job.