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‘Scenes From a Marriage’ Shares a Playbook With ‘Master of None’ Season 3

Both series pay homage to Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 television experiment—though HBO revisits the material as a straight-up remake

HBO/Ringer illustration

I have bad news for viewers of the Red Carpet Arm Video: You’ve been had. First, some context: While attending the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month, stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain shared a very public private moment. In the span of a few seconds, Isaac kisses Chastain’s bicep, then locks eyes with her in adoration and what certainly appears to be lust; neither acknowledges the cameras that capture the entire exchange in hi-def and slow motion. The internet went predictably off the rails, a phenomenon Chastain winked at with a tweet advertising the premiere date for the actors’ latest project: a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, to air in five parts on HBO.

The deception here is not that Chastain and Isaac are professionals who can weaponize their charisma to promote a TV show. All’s fair in love and ratings, and as members of the endangered species that is the old-school movie star, the actors are within their rights to put on a show—in fact, we should expect them to. I don’t have to believe Chastain and Isaac are in love to take joy in their convincing performance of it.

No, the bait-and-switch comes when Chastain and Isaac start to interact on screen. Yes, their characters in Scenes from a Marriage have sex. But this isn’t a story about the smoldering tension that first draws a couple together. It’s about the yearslong process of a union slowly breaking apart, a synopsis that might be a spoiler if the original didn’t premiere almost half a century ago. Also, you don’t put an Academy Award nominee and a Coen brothers muse on a soundstage for them to cosplay domestic bliss. (In the most cruel of ironies, our foremost Oscar has yet to be put up for … an Oscar. Fix this, Academy!)

Isaac and Chastain have played a married couple before, in the 2014 crime drama A Most Violent Year. In Scenes From a Marriage, however, they’re reprising not just their own performances, but that of another pair of actors—or really, two. Released in 1973, Bergman’s Scenes was a late-career experiment, a storied auteur branching into television long before the likes of David Lynch or Park Chan-Wook. By going long, Bergman gave runway to longtime collaborators Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who turned the bond between divorce lawyer Marianne and psychologist Johan into a convincingly lived-in relationship. Coming just a few months after the landmark PBS docuseries An American Family, Scenes From a Marriage formed half of a two-part argument for TV’s capacity to show human partnership in all its messy nuance—one unscripted, one staged.

In the years since, the medium has taken that lesson to heart. In the past decade, plenty of shows have explored the pitfalls of long-term monogamy, though most have been comedies like Catastrophe or You’re the Worst. (The awkwardness of, say, childbirth or period sex are often best conveyed with a lighter tone.) But for its own domestic still life, emphasis on the “still,” Aziz Ansari’s Master of None instead took a hard turn toward the dramatic. Subtitled Moments in Love, the show’s third season was partly promoted as an homage to Scenes From a Marriage, with parallels that produce plenty of imitation, if not so much flattery. As director and cowriter, Ansari doesn’t just repurpose Scenes’ static, claustrophobic frames. The plot, too, features heavy overlap. Like Johan and Marianne, Moments in Love’s Alicia and Denise play host to an unhappy couple in the premiere, their guests’ trouble foreshadowing their own. And like their Swedish counterparts, the two endure infidelity, a traumatic pregnancy, and divorce before reuniting in the home they once made as a unit. Moments in Love updates its inspiration primarily by altering who does the suffering: a Black lesbian couple facing racism and homophobia on top of their bourgeouis ennui.

Compared to Moments in Love, the HBO Scenes is partly a reversion to the original’s setup. Isaac’s Jonathan and Chastain’s Mira are a white, heterosexual, professional couple living in a suburb, a profile much closer to that of Bergman’s protagonists. (Jonathan is an ex–Orthodox Jew, an ethno-religious identity that sets him apart from the Swedes.) Jonathan is an academic like Johan, but Mira is a high-powered tech executive, introducing flipped gender roles, insecurity (his), and have-it-all guilt (hers) to their dynamic. In the ’70s series’ opening, Marianne and Johan are interviewed by a magazine journalist looking for successful love stories; in this one, Mira and Jonathan speak with a grad student researching heterosexual marriages with female breadwinners.

The new Scenes From a Marriage is created, directed, and largely written by Israeli screenwriter Hagai Levi, who’s no stranger to international adaptation; his drama BeTipul was remade in America as In Treatment, which saw its own recent revival on HBO. Like In Treatment, Scenes From a Marriage has a premise that’s more theatrical than cinematic: two people talking in a room, often without interruption. That setup also describes the ideal TV production to minimize risk and expense during a pandemic, which explains why both shows are having a renaissance right now. Most episodes of Scenes From a Marriage open beyond the fourth wall, with Chastain and Isaac navigating the chaos backstage; the camera weaves and bobs behind them as they make their way to the set that doubles as their characters’ spacious Boston home. Before the clapperboard starts the action in earnest, every crew member they pass is wearing a mask.

This device can feel a bit gimmicky, a visual barely metaphor for the performance inherent in social institutions like matrimony. (When you think about it, “husband” and “wife” are just another part to play, man!) But it is effective in demarcating this version of Scenes from its predecessors. Both Bergman and Ansari used stasis to show the suffocation of their central relationships. Levi’s Scenes is filled with movement, a jittery unease that suggests an unsteady equilibrium, ready to combust or break apart at any moment. Sure enough, it does both.

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. (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.

Partway through the premiere, Mira and Jonathan have dinner with their friends, a married couple played by Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll. Upon hearing about the interview earlier that day, Stoll feigns annoyance, asking why the researcher wouldn’t want to hear about a more modern kind of marriage—like his interracial, open one. It’s a show of self-awareness as well as a fair point. Mira and Jonathan may have a hard time untangling their lives, but it’s far easier for the viewer at home to disengage from a struggle they’ve seen before.