Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac Can’t Save HBO Series

  • Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac are formidable partners in HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”
  • Their tangible chemistry radiates from the screen in the series’ best moments.
  • Swapping gender roles from the original series is the show’s fatal flaw.

Warning: Some spoilers ahead for HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”

How much violence, infidelity, and resentment can exist between two people before the bond that connects them is finally broken? And why can we, as human beings, hold such contempt for the people we love?

These are questions Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman explores in his classic 1973 TV series “Scenes From a Marriage.”

Almost 50 years later, these same questions have been offered up again with a slick contemporary polish in a new limited HBO series starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.

A couple — this time Mira (Chastain), a wealthy tech executive, and Jonathan (Isaac), an earnest university professor — is once again at the center of the story. But their lives have been transported from Bergman’s Sweden to present-day America by director and co-writer Hagai Levi.

Mira and Jonathan are married, and on the surface, their lives — in the crude neoliberal sense — seem perfect. They both have Ivy League degrees, prestigious, white-collar careers, and, quite important to the show’s narrative, they’re both very attractive.

But across five long, dialogue-heavy episodes, almost all of which take place within the couple’s handsome suburban home, we watch their relationship fall in some of the most dramatic and inhumane circumstances one could be subjected to.

What’s Hot: Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac make a perfect unhappy couple

Like virtually all of Bergman’s TV work at the end of his career, “Scenes From a Marriage” was chopped up into a feature film to be released internationally.

The film picked up the best foreign-language film award at the Golden Globes and was famously held responsible for inspiring a significant hike in the national divorce rate in Sweden. Reports from the time show that the waiting list for marriage guidance services shot up from three weeks to three months in Stockholm. Bergman was even forced to remove his contact details from the national directory due to calls from strangers wanting to discuss their marriage with him.

Levi’s remake inspires similar intense emotions from the viewer, and it’s almost entirely thanks to the performances of Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.

The pair are perfectly matched on paper, and here they dig into the best parts of all their previous performances: Isaac is brooding and intellectual (as best seen in “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Chastain is forceful and insatiable (as seen in myriad blockbusters such as “Zero Dark Thirty”).

But the two are just as entertaining, and perhaps more effective, when they are forced out of these familiar modes.

As the series begins, for instance, the two are interviewed about their lives by a plucky graduate student for a gender studies project (a clever and economical way to set the scene). Jonathan takes great pleasure in divulging the exciting origins of their relationship while Mira, not completely unengaged but somewhat emotionally removed, sidesteps questions and forgoes details.

Instantly we know something about this relationship isn’t right and which direction to look to for answers.

Furthermore, Chastain and Isaac’s chemistry — which was recently advertised on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival where the show premiered — is palpable. The charge between them oozes off the screen.

What’s not: Gender-swapping isn’t progressive when it vilifies women

All the chemistry in the world can’t erase the biggest flaw in “Scenes From a Marriage.”

Mira is set up to be a villain from the very first episode. As the couple is sitting on their couch suffering through the awkward interview about the intimacies of their marriage, we feel Mira’s sense of pride at being the breadwinner in her family. By the time she’s physically abusing Jonathan because she doesn’t want to sign divorce papers to end the marriage she imploded with an affair, we’ve had enough.

In a monogamous marriage, like the one Mira and Jonathan are shown to have, cheating because you are unhappy is betrayal, plain and simple. “Scenes From a Marriage” doesn’t do much to imply anything else.

But then, what’s the point of swapping gender roles assigned in the 1973 original series? We have plenty of female villains in media today, especially in the US. Levi’s decision to flip the original series to make the female spouse (Mira) the unfaithful abuser doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about marriage or gender roles at all. It’s just frustrating to watch unfold for five hours.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain


Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in “Scenes From a Marriage.”

Jojo Whilden/HBO

There’s also the matter of how “Scenes From a Marriage” handles Mira’s abortion.

That the series implies Mira’s decision to end her pregnancy contributed to the end of her marriage, even though Jonathan appears supportive of that choice, leaves a bad taste in our mouths. It’s tough to reconcile the show’s insistence that Mira — a woman who takes pride in her career and rather abruptly leaves her husband for a much younger man — would ever yearn for traditional marriage and more children ever again.

We aren’t watching “Scenes From a Marriage” expecting anything close to a happy ending. But every woman is well within their right to feel outraged by the end of the series.

When we meet Mira and Jonathan, her affair is the catalyst for the end of her marriage. Yet, before the final fade-out, we learn something about Jonathan that’s equally unsavory — and the show hints at no imminent consequences brewing for him. Why, then, should we be reading Mira as the villain in this story, as the series appears to insist?

Jessica Chastain


Jessica Chastain in “Scenes From a Marriage.”

Jojo Whilden/HBO

Bottom Line: Come for the chemistry, because there’s little else worth your time here

Chastain and Isaac give powerful, passionate performances in HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage” remake. They have a rare chemistry that is sometimes strong enough to leave the audience gasping for air.

But the update doesn’t provide unique or compelling answers to Bergman’s original questions. It only leaves us with a new, maddening one: Will Hollywood ever get tired of painting women as the villain?

Grade: B

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