“Why does it take so long to break up? Why does no one talk about the fact that [divorce] is endless trauma?” Jessica Chastain asks in a heartbreaking moment from HBO’s devastating marital and breakup mini-series “Scenes From A Marriage.” A modern adaptation of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s brutally emotionally honest 1970s series, now written, directed, and executive produced by Israeli filmmaker Hagai Levi, (“Our Boys,” “The Affair,” and “In Treatment”), this new HBO version is intimate, intense, equally painful, and hard to watch at times; a re-examination of many of the spousal complications the original series interrogated.
Married and divorced five times and fathering nine children – the mothers of whom he all married after the fact (minus one, a sixth major relationship) – and having dozens of mistresses over the years, Bergman knew a little something about marriage, divorce, and heartache suffered and heartache caused. Made after marriage number four imploded, the 1973 made-for-Swedish-television series was gut-wrenching; a devastating look at a marriage’s disintegration, spanning over ten years, sifting through all the wreckage, pain, hurt, tentative and confusing reconciliations, and the bittersweetness of moving on.
Featuring Chastain and Oscar Isaac, Levi’s version is seen through the lens of a contemporary American couple, though it’s surprisingly faithful to the original (albeit compressed to about four years or so). It utilizes many of the exact storylines and episode titles, but still feels surprisingly fresh, in part due to the storyline’s gendered flip (she leaves him this time).
As anyone who’s in it knows, marriage is hard, children make it more complex and “Scenes Of A Marriage” explores all the dilemmas that make marriage so tough: sustaining love, eschewing hate, grappling with dissatisfaction, circumventing resentment, maintaining desire, struggling with monogamy, losing identity, co-dependency, and more. And that’s just the marriage side of it; surviving the emotional devastation of divorce, its aftermath and the way relationships need to be upheld for the sake of children takes up much emotional weight too.
Episode one, “Innocence and Panic,” introduces Mira (Chastain), a headstrong, ambitious tech exec, and Jonathan (Isaac), an intellectual philosophy professor. As in the original series, they host a squabbling married couple over for dinner (Nicole Beharie, Corey Stoll). Balancing an open relationship that’s not working, Mira and Jonathan comment on how miserable they seem, but this delusion, this un-self-awareness of their own situation, belies the way couples lie to themselves about reality.
Earlier, the pair are interviewed for a college newspaper about relationships and intimacy, and Mira seems deeply uncomfortable with the entire exercise. Later, Mira reveals she is pregnant – it would be their second child – but having doubts about her career, she ends up having an abortion.
The true nature of Mira’s misgivings and hesitation are revealed soon after: she’s been unfulfilled for years, she’s been having an affair, and she’s leaving Jonathan. As in right now. Blindsided by it all, and more conventional due to his Jewish orthodox upbringing, Jonathan is shattered, and desperate to do whatever it takes to salvage the relationship. Distraught herself for the damage she knows she’s about to cause, she says she just can’t stop herself and has to rip off the bandage immediately rather than cause sustained emotional injury to everyone, including their daughter Ava.
If this sounds emotionally crushing — a bomb that’s gone off, leaving a marriage demolished in front of your eyes and having to witness it all in real-time — it is. Jonathan asking for all the details in the affair, Mira obliging, and the entire reveal of the affair, the details, and the dissolution of it over the course of one episode is one of the most wrenching episodes of TV you may ever experience.
Like the original, “Scenes From A Marriage” is relatively minimalist: one room, two actors, a lot of heartbreak, anger, hurt, disbelief, emotional wounds, and more. It lives and dies by its actors, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Chastain and Isaac are absolutely outstanding in it, capturing emotional injury, selfishness, self-preservation, and despair with an accuracy that may leave you curled up in a ball, needing time to recover before the next episode.
Yet, as difficult as this all is, “Scenes From A Marriage” is more than just painful to watch and depressing. Yes, it’s tracking the very high emotional cost of divorce, of separation, of disentangling of lives you thought would be forever connected. Anyone who’s ever hurt over a painful breakup will likely relive some grief, and anyone who’s currently trying to maintain a healthy relationship is bound to see something uncomfortable in the series. But Levi doesn’t forget the soulfulness in tenderness, and how most marriages, even those that suffered termination, are — or were, at least — inextricably bound by the bonds of love.
Much of it is made very personal too. The judgmental Judaic orthodoxy that Jonathan tries to move past informs a lot of Isaac’s character, who is cerebral, accommodating, and always wants to work things out, even at the expense of himself. Chastain’s character is much more enigmatic and seen in a much harsher light at first: seemingly narcissistic and driven by consumerism, careerism, and shallow ideas of “self-actualization.” It’s Jonathan who wants to salvage things and it’s Mira who wants to cut and run, and it does feel abrupt and out of nowhere to the point where it’s conceivable that some audiences (or some male ones, anyway) could potentially resent her.
While that may seem misogynistic initially, it’s refreshing to see the woman be the selfish one in stories like this — usually, it’s the man, as it is in the original series (this is the 21st century, after all). Not to mention, Jonathan’s rigid, critical, disapproving nature and the way he was cluelessly oblivious to Mira’s existential pain is also eventually explained as asphyxiating. It takes two to tango, and while Levi perhaps cannot help but sympathize with Jonathan a bit more in the details, what he’s trying to get at, and what he largely succeeds at conveying, is that marriage, divorce, and its aftermath are a two-way street, often overstuffed with the blind spots about our failures in it. It’s about how romance fades, how a failure to communicate is death, and how sustaining a healthy relationship seems impossible no matter how hard we try. In the process, it illuminates why a need for therapy and couples counseling will exist until the end of time. More than anything, as Mira says, it’s about the trauma of uncoupling, and how hard it is to survive reliving the never-ending damage of broken hearts. [B+]
“Scenes from a Marriage” premiered at the Venice Film Festival and airs on HBO starting September 12.
*Each episode begins with the actors arriving on set with COVID-19 protocols in place, getting the scene situated and then calling action to seamlessly start. It may have little to do with the show, but it’s a good reminder of what everyone is doing in the film and TV industry in order to bring entertainment, made safely, to the masses, and that’s not nothing.