Don’t worry if you’re confused by the opening moments of HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish TV miniseries. It’s not just you. Several installments in writer-director Hagai Levi’s contemporary take begin with one of the leads — Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac — walking onto the set, interacting with various members of the crew (some masked, lest we be unsure if this is a COVID-era production), then launching seamlessly into a scene of their character’s story. It’s a jarring breaking of the fourth wall, but that’s clearly Levi’s intention. This, after all, is the tale of a relationship’s nosedive, where tension is constantly bubbling under the surface until it boils over into moments of intense drama.
Chastain and Isaac were Julliard classmates, played a married couple in 2014’s “A Most Violent Year” and are longtime friends; that red-carpet kiss he planted on her arm at the Venice Film Festival foretold this: Their chemistry is real, and it carries over to Mira and Jonathan, the ambitious product manager and philosophy professor they play.
When we meet Mira and Jonathan, they’re sitting in their living room for an interview with a Ph.D student who wants to know the particulars of their decade-long “successful” marriage. Jonathan is only too happy to wax on about their daughter, how he’s the primary caregiver and Mira is the primary breadwinner and how they both see marriage as a “means … it’s not an end,” he says. It’s a “platform that allows us to develop as individuals,” which is a sincere statement if not exactly a sexy one.
Mira, meanwhile, is visibly uncomfortable with the entire process, allowing Jonathan to answer for her and agreeing with whatever he says the rest of the time, all while sneaking glances at her phone. Sharing specifics would spoil too much, but suffice it to say the phone peeks are a factor in at least one of the relationship hits that sends Mira and Jonathan’s marriage on a downward spiral.
The details of what happens aren’t really the point, anyway. That interview with the student reveals how anxious Mira is and how oblivious Jonathan is to her anxiety. Those few moments hint at all we’re about to learn, how she feels unseen and unheard, how he feels unaccepted for who he is.
There are happy moments, as when they recall how they were friends who saved each other from loneliness and when they remind each other that no one knows them like they know each other. But one of the insights Levi’s scripts hit again and again is that allowing someone to know you that well also provides them with the ammunition to shatter you, to send you reeling, with one sharply aimed verbal gut punch. Her jabs about his sexual hang-ups and his poke about her communication skills after she shares devastating career news ultimately lead to a physical meltdown that changes their relationship permanently.
By the end of the second episode, it seems clear Mira and Jonathan aren’t going to make it as a couple. We don’t need five installments just to watch them hurt each other more deeply, while also sending mixed messages about how they want to move forward. Three, maybe four, might have been the magic number. And, spoiler alert, the series finale looks to their future, but then proceeds to ultimately leave the story and the characters unsatisfyingly unsettled.
The upside is that five episodes give Levi — who knows his way around this subject matter as the co-creator of Showtime’s “The Affair” — plenty of time to delve into the nuances of the story. Big-picture answers regarding the dissolution of Mira and Jonathan’s connection aren’t forthcoming; Levi instead focuses on the hundreds of small paper cuts that happen throughout marriages, and how the silent anger and resentment they breed can plant seeds that grow into relationship implosions.
Five episodes also allows Isaac and Chastain, primarily movie actors, to fully inhabit their characters, and they make the most of that extra screen time. His Jonathan is patient, far past the point you think he should be with Mira’s behavior, but Isaac also demonstrates a restrained fury that is frightening. Mira is maddeningly manipulative with Jonathan’s desire to save their marriage, but Chastain imbues her with a softening vulnerability, a reason we can be empathetic about some of the choices she makes.
All that still may not be enough to entice you to make a five-week commitment to “Scenes,” but don’t make that call before at least saying “I do” to the premiere.
“Scenes From a Marriage” premieres September 12 on HBO.