In the initial two episodes of Scenes From a Marriage, Mira (Jessica Chastain, IT: Chapter Two) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker) brush their teeth in front of their ensuite mirror. It’s an everyday task in a familiar place, spanning something we all do in a space we all use, but this powerful five-part HBO miniseries turns these two scenes into a complex snapshot of its central couple. It takes not just skill but feeling and understanding to turn such a mundane activity into a must-see; however, that’s this weighty show’s remit. Scenes From a Marriage gets viewers engrossed in cleaning teeth because it’s ordinary, and because everything within its frames fits the same description. Its central relationship careens from happy to heartbroken, comfortable to distraught, and assured to messy, but it also charts a path that countless others have before it.
When they first pick up their toothbrushes, Mira and Jonathan attend to their dental hygiene side by side. They chat between foamy mouthfuls. They’re relaxed. They’ve had an unusual day, after talking to a researcher about their nuptials and then hosting a tumultuous dinner with friends, but they’re settled in their usual regime. Seconds afterwards, they’ll discuss significant news, but they approach that, too, with a sense of unthinking security. But just one episode later, when they brush again, everything has changed. Mira returns from a work trip to share a bombshell revelation, Jonathan doesn’t take it well, and he stands back and stares at they each clean. She can’t meet his eyes. He won’t look away. Their tension, pain and sorrow fills the entire room, as does their uncertainty — and it’s a case of two moments, two people, two vastly different pictures of their relationship.
Dedicating each episode to a significant day over the course of several years — hairstyles change, and the couple’s daughter ages (primarily off-screen) — Scenes From a Marriage is filled with these routine moments. It’s a show about patterns, cycles and echoes, how they ripple through relationships and, when broken or changed, how their absence is felt. Much of the series takes place in the same domestic space, too, as the pair rove around the house they’ve made their home. So, viewers see the duo walk through the same rooms, sit in the same chairs and recline in the same bed. They have variations of the same discussion over and over as well. Every romance is an ongoing conversation that loops, sprawls and repeats, but Scenes From a Marriage pushes this notion to the fore. Mira and Jonathan are always talking, in some way, even when they’re not. Their dialogue continues whether it seems like it’s just another evening in the bathroom, or it’s a terse morning after everything has disintegrated — and as a whirlwind of love, sex, heartbreak and chaos whips through their relationship again and again.
It shouldn’t be easy, peering into a romance as its bliss fades, and stepping into its ongoing conversation. That idea isn’t Scenes From a Marriage‘s alone, and it wasn’t new in 1973, when iconic film director Ingmar Bergman ran with it in his Swedish TV miniseries of the same name. But as penned and helmed here by The Affair‘s Hagai Levi, HBO’s take on the concept turns the familiar and complex into the raw and the riveting. It breaks a relationship down into pivotal moments to strip away the blissful front that couples build for themselves, and the image they project to the world, and it refuses to look away as things turn difficult. Sketching out anything this complicated via just a few scenes is a gimmick, obviously, as the series even nods to in opening scenes that follow Chastain and Isaac getting into character. Still, in the right hands, and with the right tale of a marriage’s minutiae, it’s also devastating and powerful.
Scenes From a Marriage circa 2021 is shot and scored to ramp up that intensity, that simmering uncertainty, that seesawing between two extremes. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh, a veteran of Blue Valentine and its similarly haunting exploration of a romance in decline, prowls carefully and patiently around comfortable spaces adorned in neutral tones — places The White Lotus’ characters might’ve gone home to post-Hawaii — but lets both light and darkness visually clash and compete for attention. Composers Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine craft a score that also rides an emotional rollercoaster, setting the tone as precisely as they previously did with fellow HBO miniseries The Undoing. Each element of Scenes From a Marriage is fine-tuned to amplify the highs, the lows, and the constant to-and-fro between them.
That said, this tale of an ambitious tech industry executive, her ex-Orthodox Jewish philosophy professor husband and their fraying nuptials was always going to live and thrive via its two lead performances. Chastain and Isaac, welcome additions to any on-screen project, have played a married couple before. In fact, 2014’s A Most Violent Year also saw them navigate a stormy union — and it, like its main duo, was exceptional. The pair certainly know how to project intimacy on the red carpet, as they did at the Venice Film Festival premiere of Scenes From a Marriage. They don’t falter in the series itself, even with a concept that could’ve played like an acting exercise. Again, the conceit is highlighted in those opening seconds of the duo as themselves; however, as Chastain and Isaac walk across the set that swiftly becomes their Mira and Jonathan’s home — doing so with masks and distancing, because this was shot during the pandemic — they also help viewers step into their characters with them.
When the camera is rolling rather than flashing, Chastain and Isaac are both experts at unpacking someone’s entire emotional journey in just their gaze and stance. Accordingly, when the series flickers from the pair as actors to the duo as Mira and Jonathan, it feels seamless even though the artifice is being called out. They take the plunge, the audience does with them, and we all explore what’s happened after Scenes From a Marriage‘s protagonists did just that. On-screen, opposites attracted, then this pair combined their lives and marched forward towards the future, and now everyone weathers the fallout. Chastain and Isaac are also masterful at responding to each other, and at letting those reactions tell as much of the story as the dialogue they’re speaking. It’s been done before, and will be again — officially and in everything else that’s taken cues from the original Swedish series — but here and now, this series works as grippingly and movingly as it does because of its stars. No one can look away as they brush their teeth, share long looks and fling all manner of words at each other. They don’t want to themselves, and neither do we.
Check out the trailer below:
The first two episodes of Scenes From a Marriage are available to stream via Binge, with new instalments dropping weekly.
Images: Jojo Whilden/HBO.
Published on September 24, 2021 by Sarah Ward