HBO's anguished "Scenes From a Marriage" is so potent, your own relationship better be rock solid

Entertainment

Salon 12 September, 2021 - 02:30pm 6 views

Is scenes from a marriage on HBO Max?

Where can I watch Scenes from a Marriage?Scenes from a Marriage will premiere on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max. Stream 'Scenes from a Marriage' along with hundreds of hours of content, including Oscar Isaac's six-part miniseries 'Show Me a Hero'. Entertainment TonightHow to Watch ‘Scenes from a Marriage’

Where is Scenes from a Marriage filmed?

It was filmed in Stockholm and Fårö between July and October 1972. wikipedia.orgScenes from a Marriage

Scenes From a Marriage HBO review: Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac give an acting masterclass

The Week Magazine 13 September, 2021 - 05:10am

There is a pervasive belief that the highest compliment you can pay an actor is that they "disappeared" into their role — that the best acting is when you can't tell that the actor is acting at all.

The best actors are, above all else, cunning salespeople. 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 debuts on HBO on Sunday, and like many of Bergman's own films, 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.

Like the 2019 film Marriage Story, Scenes From a Marriage has a somewhat cynical title; the series is not so much an examination of a successful union as it is an exploration of (in Levi's words) "how traumatic a separation is, usually, in the course of human life." Aside from a few subtle but significant tweaks to Bergman's original story — including condensing the Swedish director's six episodes to a total of five — the 2021 remake of Scenes From a Marriage otherwise mostly follows in the footsteps of the original. That fidelity actually adds to the theatrical quality of the adaptation, making it more like a Broadway revival where the appeal is the actors' performances, more than it is the promise of a wholly original story.

To that end, though, you couldn't cast a better pair than Isaac and Chastain. While both have appeared in a number of less-engaging projects as of late — Isaac being underutilized in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and Chastain in It: Chapter Two and Dark Phoenix — the two are nevertheless among the best Americans working on screen today. Chastain did her most mesmerizing work in the early 2010s in The Tree of Life and Zero Dark Thirty, while Isaac's performances in Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, and Ex Machina earned him a worthy #14 spot on The New York Times' list of the greatest actors of the 21st century. As Mira and Jonathan, they still have plenty of Big, Important Monologues to showcase their raw acting abilities and perhaps win them a few Emmys, but the pair's real skill is in all that isn't said. (If you need proof of their unspoken chemistry, allow me to point you to this viral red carpet video). Scenes From a Marriage is difficult to watch as a result, because Chastain and Isaac convince you to buy into every part of their characters and their relationship; there is a deeply intimate and uncomfortable element to their performances, like you're watching a pair of close friends have an ugly argument at your dinner table.

Compounding this effect is the way Levi brings the audience behind the scenes. Nearly every episode of his Scenes From a Marriage begins on the soundstage for the show, with a documentary-style camera following Chastain or Isaac into their scene, capturing all the last-minute preparations by the masked crew scurrying through the background. The camera continues shooting through Levi's call of "action," so you actually get to experience the almost-but-not-quite-imperceptible transition of Chastain into Mira, or Isaac into Jonathan. It's a thrill akin to sitting at such an angle in a theater that you can see the cast tense in preparation in the wings before taking the stage. 

Levi's decision to boldly include his show's "strings" in such a way might sound like hubris, indicative of his complete confidence in selling you on the story. The effect, though, is greater, giving a literalness to the "scenes" of Mira and Isaac's marriage, and also complicating the way we are witnesses to the characters' tragic performances to each other as husband and wife. Yet even the audience's awareness of the stage is a bit of a trick by Levi; Scenes From a Marriage is still entirely a product of television since such backstage moments would of course be impossible in an actual theater, and the show relies heavily on deliberate cinematography and editing, intentionally holding for one character's line delivery, or another's wince. 

But by revealing to the audience the artificiality of the show, Levi allows for us to witness a true masterclass in the art of authentic acting. There is no safety net here, nor is there ever an attempt at the cheap illusion that Chastain the actress has somehow "vanished" into Mira (since she's just been called "Jessica" by a crewmember on camera moments before stepping onto the set). Rather, we are presented with Chastain and Isaac's honest, wrenching, uncomfortable, and raw presentations of their characters — presentations so skillful, indeed, that we willingly and knowingly accept as truth what is only pretend.

Scenes From a Marriage Season-Premiere Recap: The Threat of Suffocation

Vulture 12 September, 2021 - 09:00pm

Scenes From a Marriage is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 six-part television miniseries of the same name — a show that became notorious for doubling the Swedish divorce rate. (According to the Bergman Foundation, the director had to de-list his telephone number to avoid calls from viewers seeking marriage advice.) That series was eventually released in the U.S. in a shorter theatrical version, and now it’s been remade for HBO by The Affair co-creator Hagai Levi. The plot points in the first episode are the same as in the original; names and details have been updated as the times demand.

For example, when we meet Mira (Chastain subbed in for Bergman’s ex-lover Liv Ullman playing Marianne), she’s sending a text message from the upstairs bathroom, a modern shorthand for distress. She lives in a nice house that’s adorned with traditional furniture and muted paint colors from Farrow & Ball. Her 4-year-old is watching the British television comedy Wallace and Gromit, and I imagine there are tote bags from NPR and PBS in some closet, thank-you gifts for annual pledges. We know Mira and her husband, Jonathan (the rumpled and pit-sniffing Oscar Isaac), are good parents who limit screen time because their daughter, Ava, has yet to figure out how to override the parental controls and start another episode. Jon is a professor at Tufts; Mira is a tech exec. They live in Boston, likely Cambridge. Their walls are just the right amount of nicked; their art is unchallenging but well-framed.

When Mira comes downstairs, she’s greeted by a psych grad student there to interview the couple for her work on gender norms and monogamy. In the Bergman original, the couple was the subject of an obsequious magazine feature on successful marriage — an intriguing update. What Bergman deemed a topic for journalistic veneration, however ironically, is 50 years later apt to be studied. The researcher tells Mira and Jon that the average American marriage lasts 8.2 years; at ten years married, they’re outliers fit for the microscope.

Mira squirms under the lens, but Jon is an eager volunteer. Asked to define himself, he fires off attributes: man, Jewish (raised Modern Orthodox, he left his faith after college), father, Democrat, academic, 41-year-old, asthmatic. He doesn’t say “husband.” Mira feeds off his cues and answers in the same fashion: wife, 40, VP of whatever, mother. She says “mother” twice. We learn a little more about their home life — Mira is the breadwinner, Jon is seemingly happy to watch Ava. They met as undergrads in New York, just like the Juilliard classmates playing them on TV.

Years after their initial meeting in a literature class, after Jon stopped wearing his yarmulke and after Mira had suffered through “borderline abusive” relationships with bad men, they fell in love. They became roommates when Mira first moved to Boston and a couple when an ER doctor confused them for newlyweds after treating Jon for an asthma attack. They made a game of the mistake that they never stopped playing. It’s not that Jon was what Mira wanted; she says he’s what she wanted to be. He had “values and purpose.”

It becomes clear that Jon volunteered for the study to nullify its premises, like rejecting the concept of a “successful” marriage. Talking about marriage in market terms invites industries geared toward optimization — coaches, therapists, books, seminars, cruises. This is love under capitalism. Jon sees marriage as a means for having kids, feeling secure, pursuing meaningful work outside the home; passion is the snake oil for sale in the self-help section. Mira prefers Jonathan to do the talking, but eventually, she sketches her own portrait of marriage as “an equilibrium.” It keeps itself in check during the early years when the partnership feels invulnerable; later, the balance needs constant attention when you realize how fragile it is. You get the sense she’s doing most of the recalibrating herself.

When the researcher finally asks them about their monogamy, stilted laughter is the only answer. They haven’t thought much about it. That their couple friends Kate and Peter laugh uproariously when they hear about the question is more telling. They can’t imagine Jon and Mira without monogamy, though I’d be curious if they can even imagine them having sex with each other. Why are people faithful to one another? Because they’re so in love? Because self-denial is a measure of love?

Something’s up between Kate and Peter, but he doesn’t want to talk about it in front of their friends, and she can’t think about anything else. Her boyfriend, whom she loves, broke up with her. They’re the foil to Mira and Jonathan, maintaining their marriage by eliminating the expectation of monogamy in the first place. As their argument grows louder, Mira plays social chaperone, bringing Kate upstairs to resettle her. Alone, the women debate the role of passion in a happy life. Kate shares she has “outbursts of hatred” for Peter, but she also is more attracted to him than she ever was; Mira, meanwhile, is merely irked by Jon’s ritual of pushing the bottles and the lotions to the perimeter of the bathroom vanity. She sounds singularly bourgeois when she tells Kate to “rethink” the “arrangement,” then apologizes for the judgmental scolding. Mira’s having a hard day, too, but doesn’t elaborate. Everyone’s drunk. Kate kisses her on the mouth; it’s nothing. Everyone’s drunk. No one can say over the course of a dinner what love is or should be in 2021, just like they couldn’t when Bergman tried in 1973 or Raymond Carver a decade after that.

Later in bed, Mira finally reveals the reason for her distractedness, her aloofness. She’s pregnant. They didn’t plan for it. The covert texting from the bathroom was with her doctor. But Jon and Mira can’t get on the same page about the pregnancy or even how to talk about the pregnancy. They try to tease each other’s feelings so they can peg their responses to what the other wants to hear. It’s not honest, no, but it’s motivated by caring. They don’t want to hurt each other or hurt each other’s ideas of each other. This is how a marriage maintains its balance, it seems, with small movements and half-truths. Jon can’t accept that Mira “doesn’t know” how she feels and even suggests that, subconsciously, she missed her birth-control pills to realize her old dream of two kids. He wants to have the baby, he finally spits out.

It’s remarkable that 50 years after the original series aired, this still scene feels so fresh: a married couple with means discussing abortion within the marriage. (It’s interesting to note that in the 1974 U.S. theatrical release of Bergman’s original, the pregnancy and the abortion plot are removed entirely; this is the world that Roe v. Wade was decided into.) But the first two years after Ava’s birth were hard for them; there’s a suggestion, I’m pretty sure, that Mira suffered from postnatal depression or possibly worse. They can’t even talk about the facts of their lives with frankness. “It’s painful wanting something and not wanting it at the same time,” she tells Jon forebodingly. Still, by lights out, they’ve talked themselves round to a modest home renovation to make space for their new addition. Of course, happily married couples have more babies.

But something changes in the intervening week, and the next time we see Mira and Jon, they’re at the doctor for an abortion. This time, Jon’s the one fidgety and ill at ease. He arrives late and immediately leaves the exam room to get a soda. Is he afraid of the medical-ness of their decision or the decision itself? Is he afraid of what he might say if he sits there holding Mira’s hand, or what Mira might say to him? He clearly doesn’t want the abortion; it’s just that the abortion is what’s right. It’s how their marriage stays the same. Mira offers that they could still renovate his office, which feels like a genuine and kind bid to manufacture a kind of momentum for their lives. But after she takes the pill that will end the pregnancy, she asks to be alone. She sobs because she had an abortion or because she wanted to have an abortion, or because she’s living this lovely life and can’t figure out how to like it.

For a series that happens almost entirely in sustained dialogue, what Chastain and Isaac achieve across the hour strikes me as athletic. Every movement matters. The way feet shuffle, the way dishes are cleared and wine is poured. If the conversation never ends, the life of the household needs to happen in the background. Jon and Mira are far apart and growing farther, but how do you show that between two people who refuse to be unkind to each other, who refuse to ignore each other’s questions? I don’t know, and yet, in the premiere of Scenes From a Marriage, I watched it happen.

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