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HBO's Scenes From a Marriage turns marital drama into dull prestige TV

  • "Some couples have a harmonious flow, but with other couples, you sense that something’s off," says Tim Grierson of the HBO limited series that Hagai Levi adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s iconic Swedish miniseries, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. "Mira and Jonathan have a seemingly good life — she’s an executive at a tech company, he’s in academia, they have an adorable little girl — but that ineffable something lingers there between them. Maybe they can feel it, too. That feeling is echoed by a similar sensation you may notice while watching this five-part, five-hour series.... What initially appears to be a sharp dissection of the landmines that await any long-term couple starts to drift into something a lot less incisive. Like Mira and Jonathan’s relationship, Scenes From a Marriage ultimately feels a bit off, never quite as great as it should be. Over the series’ five-week run, you’ll see some subtle dramatic nuance, some bittersweet observations about the impossibility of monogamy and probably a bit too much capital-A acting. But for all its emotional tumult, Scenes From a Marriage too often mistakes prestige-TV polish for profundity. The show turns marital anguish into awards-season classiness."

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    • Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac prove charisma and chemistry can go very far: "Isaac and Chastain simmer and seethe and weep and yell and kiss and weep more and yell more through every scene of this limited series’ five episodes, and the emotional rollercoaster they provide often enlivens, and then surpasses, the depth of their characters or the nuance of Levi’s writing," says Roxana Hadadi. "The divisive, passionate, and resentful layers that Isaac and Chastain add to their crumbling couple here, after the united-front alliance of their characters in J.C. Chandor’s 2014 film A Most Violent Year, provide a kind of meta-commentary on the passage of time, the malleability of our identities, and the impossibility of monogamy." She adds "that nearly every technical aspect of Scenes From a Marriage is either efficient or sufficient, but rarely ascends into remarkability. That rarified air exists for Chastain and Isaac alone, who enliven the miniseries in both its quiet and loud moments. Chastain’s malleable face flickers between exhausted resignation, weary discomfort, guttural anger, and conciliatory acquiescence time and time again. During an interview scene while Jonathan and Mira discuss their marriage, during a fight with Jonathan about her plans for the future, during a conversation with a friend that ends in a surprising moment of sexual desire. Chastain’s line deliveries go from stammering to punchy and her physicality goes from closed-off to provocative, and yet her put-upon smile reveals Mira’s pervasive unsteadiness."
    • While the performances are tremendous, the adaptation is uninspired: "Hagai Levi, writer and director of HBO’s five-episode remake of Scenes from a Marriage, already owed the original series a debt of gratitude for its influence on the two-handed dramatics of BeTipul (and its American version, In Treatment) and the tortured infidelities and reconciliations of The Affair," says Daniel Fienberg. "Saying that HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage feels derivative and insufficiently reflective could mean that it takes too few leaps from the source material or that it too much resembles countless subsequent properties that aspired to the label Bergmanesque. The high-emotion sparring between stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain is spectacular and provides some reason for viewers to invest in this stressful series. But that isn’t the same as understanding what Levi thought he had to add to such a revered framework. You surely don’t need to have watched Scenes From a Marriage in its original television format or the edited cinematic incarnation — the latter is now available on HBO Max — but familiarity with the Bergman version enables you to see how small and superficial most of Levi’s changes are."
    • What Scenes From a Marriage feels like, more than anything, is a bare-bones acting exercise: "It has a limited supporting cast (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie play a couple Jonathan and Mira are friends with in the first episode, and it's the most you'll see of anyone else) and it takes place almost entirely in their home," says Linda Holmes. "The series is cramped and stressful, despite — or because of? — how much of it is just two people talking (and fighting). When Jonathan and Mira are at their worst, it's tempting to see this as an extension of HBO's run of shows about horrible affluent people being ... horrible and affluent. To some degree, it is that. But the tone is much more intimate and less satirical than in something like The White Lotus or Succession, and the focus is so much on this one marriage that it doesn't have those shows' sprawl. It also doesn't provide the opportunities other shows do to throw different characters together. Instead, you're trapped with just these two and their arguments and their spiraling misery. The positive side of the narrow focus is that Isaac and Chastain are fantastic performers who — and here we go back to that red-carpet clip — really do have tremendous chemistry. The negative side is that none of the writing raises questions about marriage that feel fresh enough to make the story particularly interesting. For all that the acting is exceptional, the story feels relatively pedestrian."
    • The writing and direction tend to undercut the reality of Isaac and of Chastain’s work together: This makes "the show engaging to watch as an acting exercise by two gifted former theater students who are game and willing to try anything than it is as an examination of contemporary marriage," says Daniel D'Addario. "With the exception of bits of the first and last episodes and of the occasional presence of their daughter, Mira and Jonathan spend the series alone with one another. And they’re asked to carry titanic shifts in mood that can read at times as if one or the other, especially Mira, has undergone a personality transplant in between shots. Mira’s character history — a former college actor who now, as a tech executive, has ceded her creative side to her ambition — is coherent. But the decisions the character makes over the course of the series don’t only stifle our access to her scene partner (whose neuroses we are, in the end, told about by Mira more than we are shown). They also make it hard to decipher the work Chastain is doing. We too rarely see the moments of consideration that go into Mira’s decisions, so, announced in scenes that play out in real time, they play out as grand swings, shifting her relationship status and where she wants to live. Denied what she wants in the moment, she goes on the attack — including, in one jarring instance, physically."
    • In sports terms, Isaac and Chastain leave it all on the field: Their performances are raw and starkly presented, says Brian Lowry. But, he adds, where Scenes From a Marriage falters throughout is in the wild nature of the swings in Mira and Jonathan's interactions and behavior, making hairpin turns from civil to hostile to sexual and back again. It's hard to get lost in the drama when the dialogue and situations are this stagy and manicured. Like HBO's recent revival of In Treatment, the confined action and minimal cast makes this a particularly shrewd addition to the lineup strictly as a logistical matter, one that includes Bergman's son, director Daniel Bergman, among the executive producers along with the two stars. Still, the art-house credentials of the name aside, Scenes From a Marriage has the conspicuous feel of one of those vanity projects in which premium networks and streaming services allow talent to indulge, with the marquee value of the casting more than enough to justify the dice roll."
    • What unfolds is an easy sell for actors and a hard one for viewers: "As Mira and Jonathan, Chastain and Isaac get to cycle through every color of the emotional rainbow: angry, horny, sad, bored, earnest, annoyed, reflective, defensive," says Alison Herman. "(The lone exception is 'happy.') But once the high of watching two experts practice their craft wears off, the relentlessness of their characters’ misery starts to grind you down. It’s like if the wall-pounding scene from Marriage Story went on for five hours. 'Why does it take so long to break up?' Mira wails in one of many breakdowns. 'Why does nobody talk about the fact that it’s this fucking endless trauma?' She might as well be talking about the show. Scenes from a Marriage compounds the airlessness of pandemic production with the stale conflict at its core. Given the state of the world, the plight of those comfortable enough to be vaguely dissatisfied with their loving spouse has never felt less urgent. Satires like Succession or The White Lotus at least make the pettiness of their characters’ complaints part of the point. The new Scenes From a Marriage swaps FaceTimes for phone calls, but beyond surface details, it doesn’t have a clear thesis about how marriage has changed in the past 50 years. Moments in Love failed because its protagonist was unrecognizable compared to the rest of Master of None; Scenes From a Marriage struggles because its leads feel too close to Bergman’s, without new insight into contemporary commitment."
    • Perhaps “revival” is a better way to think of this remake: "Levi has not mined the original to make some bold new point about marriage, monogamy, or heartbreak," says Kristy Puchko. "However, he has offered a stage for two of the greatest actors working today to face off in love and war. Reunited for the first time since J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, Isaac and Chastain are mesmerizing together. Both have dizzying screen presences that bring life to dialogue that feels well worn. Beyond that, they have a natural ease with each other. When the resentments bubble up, it hits harder because the intimacy established feels authentic."
    • Scenes From a Marriage manages to stand on its own as a modern retelling: "It takes gumption to adapt a classic by a filmmaker 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 mostly stands on its own as a modern retelling complete with iPhones, Airbnb and talk of gender roles and preferred pronouns," says Leslie Katz. "At the same time, it honors the spirit of the original with long, fraught conversations; lingering Bergman-esque close-ups; and a similar muted palette. Many plot points echo the original, too, including the characters' names, with Mira and Jonathan standing in for Marianne and Johan. (Chastain, incidentally, bears a striking physical resemblance to Liv Ullman as Marianne, though in this version, it's the wife initiating the breakup.) The HBO series, which tracks the upper-middle-class couple's relationship over the course of several years, can feel relentlessly intense at times, even suffocating: Don't expect a light pandemic distraction, or even a single laugh; this is more along the lines of Netflix's searing Marriage Story, another relationship drama inspired by Bergman. Levi doesn't deliver any particularly fresh relationship insights, and five hours of marital combat is a whole lot to take. But viewers who hang on through the tender finale are likely to find some reward in the excruciatingly honest, relatable exploration of the joys and challenges of long-term coupledom -- and in the work of two exceedingly skilled performers traversing exhausting, ever-shifting emotional terrain. This is a story about love falling apart, but it's also a story about love reconfiguring itself."
    • The remake is unnecessary, but the performances make it feel essential: "Everything can be made better, but no one is clamoring to remake Citizen Kane or reboot The Simpsons," says Ross Bonhaime. "Similarly, the work of Ingmar Bergman is so distinct and has such a specific voice attached to the Swedish auteur, that it’s hard to imagine the confidence one would have to believe they could remake one of his stories. Certainly, Bergman can be improved, but his library of work almost seems impossible to match, let alone build upon. That’s the task at hand with HBO’s adaptation of Scenes From a Marriage, a story which Bergman originally made for Swedish television, before adapting it into a condensed feature film in the 1970s. While films like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Blue Valentine have been clearly influenced by the original, the story has never received a remake, despite the fact that it seems like prime fodder for talented actors. Directed and co-written by Hagai Levi (alongside Amy Herzog), who was the co-creator of The Affair, and created the series BeTipul, which was adapted into HBO’s In Treatment, this Scenes from a Marriage is led by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, two extremely talented actors who haven't had great roles to sink their teeth into for quite some time. If Scenes From a Marriage had to be remade, it’s hard to imagine a group better than this to do it with."
    • Fortunately, and not surprisingly, Chastain and Isaac make this thing live: "They are each completely dialed-in and totally believable as a couple with a vast, un-erasable history whose weight can be felt in the spaces between them," says Jen Chaney. "Surely the chemistry between Chastain and Isaac is bolstered by the fact that they have played spouses before, in 2014’s under-seen and excellent A Most Violent Year. When the moment calls for it, there is real, palpable heat between them. To put it another way: If you thought the way Isaac kissed Chastain’s arm on the Venice Film Festival red carpet was hot, your genitalia may burst into actual flames when you watch episode four of Scenes From a Marriage. The actors and the series as a whole are careful not to paint Mira or Jonathan with reductive strokes. Both Chastain and Isaac play them as human beings whose edges can sharpen or soften depending on the circumstances. Shot, like the original was, in frequent close-ups and in tight spaces, the things that they don’t say to each other carry as much significance as the things they do. Some of the best character work that Chastain and Isaac do comes not in their blow-ups but in quiet moments: the careful and calm packing of a suitcase, a glance in another direction when eye contact is needed."
    • Levi is a deft emotional choreographer, and Chastain and Isaac are the dancers you want executing the steps: "Jonathan is a type Isaac plays well, a reflective intellectual with a 'need for moral superiority' who holds a lot of resentment and familial-religious angst behind that lush beard," says James Poniewozik. "Chastain’s Mira is both more expressive and more controlled; she has less guilt about wanting more from life and love, but she’s more volatile than she lets the world see. When they fight, they fight explosively; one confrontation turns uncomfortably physical. Their muscle-memory sexual attraction is wholly believable. (I remind you: They are played by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.) Their connection comes through in tiny moments, as when Jonathan packs a suitcase for Mira, simultaneously an act of love and aggression. It’s all well observed and exquisitely acted, yet this Scenes seems to have defied Tolstoy by finding an unhappy family that is unhappy in a very familiar way. The gender swap may say something about husbands and wives redefining their roles, but TV has had a half century of heterosexual marriage stories since Bergman to work that one out."
    • Chastain and Isaac give an acting masterclass: "The best actors are, above all else, cunning salespeople," says Jeva Lange. "Their job is to sell complete strangers on joining them in the child's game of pretending that they're someone we know they're not. The actor's craft isn't the same as an illusionist's — making the strings disappear — but of seductively inviting an audience to ignore an otherwise obvious reality. 'Putting aside will and intellect,' the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once said of watching films, 'we make way for it in our imagination.' Writer/director Hagai Levi's remake of Bergman's 1973 miniseries Scenes From a Marriage ... could be accused of being too theatrical. By that charge, one presumably means it has a kind of perceptible construction to it: the sets have the rigidity of stages, and the main characters — in Levi's remake, philosophy professor Jonathan and his successful tech executive wife of 10 years, Mira — are 'played' by actors as recognizable as Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. But Scenes From a Marriage is a spectacular showcase of the duo's immense acting chops, and all the more so because Levi reminds you that it's all pretend."
    • How much did Hagai Levi refer to the source material?: "It was common in rehearsal. It was less common in shooting," he says. "When I started writing, I never watched it again. I felt I didn’t want to see it. I have a script and it’s not right. Especially Oscar, he really liked to watch it again and again to take whatever he could from there and get inspiration. Sometimes they said it felt to me like a sort of Frankenstein experiment, where I’m changing the rules but keeping the original story. It’s sometimes created very weird moments. To understand why I did that, we would go back to the original. But once we started shooting, it was quite rare. I didn’t allow it."
    • Why does Scenes From a Marriage begin by showing Jessica Chastain behind the scenes before she's in character?: “You know, I have to say, I’ve had to answer this question so many times, and in the end, it’s kind of an intuition that you have,” says Levi. “I never wrote it. It was never in the script. It was kind of an instinct I had when we started rehearsal, when we built the sets and I felt, in a way, a bit estranged from all the specificities of this couple. In a way, I wanted to say, hey, this is not about this very specific couple. I’m not American, so I’m not doing a show about a specific American couple. It’s much more general, much more abstract than this. And that was, for me, a way to say that — I don’t know if it makes sense, but that was kind of a feeling that I had. And then it was fun to do that. And then we found a lot of other good reasons to do that. But … it was just an instinct.”
    • Levi says shooting amid a pandemic was difficult, but contributed to the intensity: "We were isolated on a small stage (in Mount Vernon, New York)," he says. "We couldn’t go anywhere. I was there without my family. It felt like being on another planet. We were one of the first productions to start up again, in August. We had a very big department of nurses and supervisors. The strangest thing was working for five months with people whose faces I never saw. At the wrap, I had everyone gather, and asked everyone, one-by-one, to reveal their face. It was an ecstatic moment. I mean, you can always imagine how someone looks behind a mask, but you never really know."
    • How was Levi initially approached about remaking Scenes From a Marriage?: "I was approached by Ingmar Bergman’s son, who watched In Treatment," he says. "That was, I think, around eight years ago. He thought that I could be the right person to do this remake. He was thinking about it for some years and had some motives about that, and he thought I could do it. It’s a very tricky thing because a remake is something very specific. I didn’t want to do something like 'inspired by' or 'loosely based on.' I wanted to do a remake that was, in a way, like they do in theater. Like they take Shakespeare and do it again and again and again, and every time they have a different approach."
    • Jessica Chastain says "I cried every day for four months": “For me it definitely felt incredibly personal,” Chastain said a month after filming ended. “That’s why I don’t know if I have another one like this in me. Yeah, I can’t decide that. I can’t even talk about it without. …” 
    • Chastain calls her real-life friendship with Oscar Isaac a blessing and a curse: She said that, despite that friendship, the intensity of the show posed unique challenges. “We would joke that (the friendship) is a blessing and a curse," she says." It’s a blessing because there’s immediate trust. You don’t have to be worried about offending. You can be very honest. The difficult thing is that at times we were reading each other’s minds. It was like ‘get out of my head’. So, I felt on this job there was no quiet time.” “It felt incredibly exposing”, she said. “It was hard to go home and leave it at work. Part of myself was in it.” Chastain also admitted that the project was an intense one to make: “It felt incredibly exposing”, she said. “It was hard to go home and leave it at work. Part of myself was in it.”
    • Chastain says Isaac would sing to her between takes and they would drink bourbon to ease the tension of sex scenes: "Sex scenes to me are embarrassing," she says. “I’m fine talking about them. For one scene, the intimacy coordinator came in after the first take and said, ‘It doesn’t look like you guys are having sex.’ That was the note. I was like, ‘We’re not having sex.’ (Laughs.) Both Oscar and I were like, ‘Okay, great, thanks.' I said, 'Well, I think it’s just a romantic moment?' She said, 'Maybe more up-and-down action?' See, it’s just embarrassing! So the next shot, it’s just like (moves her body awkwardly up and down). I know it looks sexy, but it’s not. Oscar is such a good friend. Because I was so nervous, he played music and we drank a little bit of bourbon. He’d say, 'Just pretend there’s nobody else here. It’s okay.' And there’s a song I really like, so he’d start singing in between the takes. So I was like, Okay, just lock eyes on him. The most beautiful part of one of the love scenes is the love in their eyes when they’re looking at each other. And he helped create that."

    TOPICS: Scenes From a Marriage, HBO, Hagai Levi, Ingmar Bergman, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac




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