Each episode of “Scenes From a Marriage” opens with a bit of frank reality. The five installments of HBO’s new limited series begin showing one of the show’s stars, Jessica Chastain or Oscar Isaac, getting prepared for shooting — walking to set, receiving makeup last-looks. Then the clapperboard closes and, suddenly, we’re in the scene.
It’s disconcerting, at least at first. If this is an attempt to emphasize the challenges faced by productions in the COVID era, the point is effectively made. (Chastain’s and Isaac’s helpers are masked, and in one scene, Isaac wears a face shield.) But if it’s trying to claim space for the show as especially real and frank — a fitting description for a reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries, probing the collapse of a long-term relationship with painful intimacy — it backfires, somewhat. The 2021 “Scenes From a Marriage,” written and directed by Israeli TV auteur Hagai Levi and set to premiere out of competition at the Venice Film Festival before airing on HBO, tends towards the proudly, fervidly theatrical. And its fleeting bits of cinema vérité emphasize by contrast both what it does well, and what it does poorly. All that the show is, compelling and less so, stems from a boundless appetite for the grandeur of drama, even when it overlays and shouts down the stuff of life.
We meet Chastain and Isaac’s characters, first, in an interview where they discuss what makes their relationship work. (In Bergman’s series, actors Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson were speaking to a journalist; here, the conversation is serving the research of a grad student, played by Sunita Mani.) What’s immediately clear is that the relationship doesn’t work: Chastain’s Mira is ill-at-ease and strangely, floatingly uncertain of herself, while Isaac’s Jonathan feels no anxiety about answering for his wife, and has conceived of a narrative of the family’s life together that Mira co-signs, just barely.
The homages to Bergman’s original continue with an uncomfortable dinner with friends (a couple played by Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll), whose clear contempt for one another seems to agitate something just barely beneath the surface in our central pairing. Respect for audiences hoping to watch without being spoiled precludes writing in detail about the nature of Mira and Jonathan’s ongoing crisis in granular detail, but suffice it to say that by the end of the first episode, they’ve made a major and life-altering decision, one that continues to haunt their interactions as time passes, with further episodes leaping ahead through time.
Chastain and Isaac — Juilliard schoolmates who previously excelled as a couple in the 2014 film “A Most Violent Year” — consistently fulfill the brief the show presents them. In lengthy, unbroken shots, they track increasingly rocky emotional terrain. There is real pleasure in watching both these performers, especially Isaac, a gifted star whose having been largely absorbed into franchise cinema has meant that much of his promise as an actor has remained just that.
Here, Isaac is relatively muted, absorbing blows from his more demonstrative scene partner with a patience that eventually, thrillingly, runs short. But the writing and direction tend to undercut the reality of his and of Chastain’s work together, making the show engaging to watch as an acting exercise by two gifted former theater students who are game and willing to try anything than it is as an examination of contemporary marriage.
With the exception of bits of the first and last episodes and of the occasional presence of their daughter, Mira and Jonathan spend the series alone with one another. And they’re asked to carry titanic shifts in mood that can read at times as if one or the other, especially Mira, has undergone a personality transplant in between shots. Mira’s character history — a former college actor who now, as a tech executive, has ceded her creative side to her ambition — is coherent. But the decisions the character makes over the course of the series don’t only stifle our access to her scene partner (whose neuroses we are, in the end, told about by Mira more than we are shown). They also make it hard to decipher the work Chastain is doing. We too rarely see the moments of consideration that go into Mira’s decisions, so, announced in scenes that play out in real time, they play out as grand swings, shifting her relationship status and where she wants to live. Denied what she wants in the moment, she goes on the attack — including, in one jarring instance, physically.
It should go without saying that Mira behaving poorly — or us perceiving her that way, denied access to any but her lowest moments — is not the issue with “Scenes From a Marriage.” (It took two to make this marriage falter, after all.) And Chastain, a performer of exquisite sensitivity who isn’t immune to the broader side of performance when it suits her, has no problem going very big. But even an actor as good as she is can’t find a clear origin for Mira’s behavior, making Mira a frustrating enigma on a show that promises a clear-eyed view of both sides of marital collapse. The endless conversation and argument of this series end up revealing little but the actors’ capacity to go there, even when where exactly “there” is feels obscure. Noah Baumbach’s 2019 film “Marriage Story” — itself clearly inspired in part by Bergman’s series — features a thrilling scene of argument, as well, and it makes for an instructive comparison. There, the motivations of the characters played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are plain at every moment to us, even as they’re obscure at times to the characters themselves.
At first, it had seemed fitting that this series shifts the way we meet the couple from a journalist’s interview to a researcher’s case study: The 2021 “Scenes From a Marriage” seems to want less to document its characters’ behavior than to search for that behavior’s origins. As director, Levi trades what had been an unblinking realism for the stagecraft of fiery conversation, through which we might eventually land upon insight. But because this series takes as its subject two people whose mutual primary trait is wrongness for their romantic partner above all else, that search comes to feel futile.
What’s left is to watch the fireworks as Chastain and Isaac immolate one another, and those are indeed spectacular. But sitting through five hours of rage — that’s a big ask. This show has proven, as if we needed further evidence, that these two actors can push themselves to extremes; it makes a point, after all, of showing us them switching on a dime from normal life on set to vibrating with tension in character. But what the acrimony accomplished, in terms of storytelling or of insight about marriage and its conclusion, remains to the end obscure. Despite valiant attempts, these scenes never add up to a coherent work.
“Scenes from a Marriage” will premiere on HBO on Sunday, Sept. 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.