When a Happy Marriage Is Just an Act

HBO’s remake of a famous relationship drama seems to forget why viewers like to watch stories of romantic turmoil.

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac sit on a couch in "Scenes From a Marriage."
Jojo Whilden / HBO

Apologies to Morticia and Gomez Addams, but a kiss to the upper arm wasn’t sexy until Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac did it on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival. A slow-motion clip of the moment, amplified by Isaac’s singular smolder, went viral earlier this month. More than 11 million Twitter users basked in the pair’s, let’s face it, pure hotness—and then presumably had to fan themselves afterward.

HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage, the show the actors were in Venice to promote, is nowhere near this romantic—or engrossing. The drama is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish miniseries about a relationship’s decade-long dissolution, a crisis so intense that it made Marriage Story look like Love Actually. But the new version, which takes place in present-day America, with the roles gender-flipped, has none of that force, largely because of one creative miscalculation: At the top of every chapter, the show goes out of its way to remind viewers that what they’re watching isn’t real.

The first episode begins with a masked production assistant asking Chastain what time she'd like to have lunch while the actor weaves past crew members; the second follows Isaac as he prepares for his entrance. These glimpses into actors’ real-life routines are compelling at first, but as a framing device, they quickly overstay their welcome, distracting the audience with footage better left for the DVD extras. The writer and director Hagai Levi (In Treatment) explained in an interview that the idea to draw attention to behind-the-scenes activity was spontaneous. “It was kind of an instinct I had when we started rehearsal,” he said. “I wanted to say, Hey, this is not about this very specific couple … It’s much more general, much more abstract than this. And that was, for me, a way to say that—I don’t know if it makes sense.”

It doesn’t. For one, the on-set sequences date the show as a pandemic-era production. Two, in trying to universalize his central couple’s experience, Levi seems to misunderstand what makes relationship dramas resonate. Given how many of these stories amount to a series of painful fights, viewers have to be persuaded to stick around. The couple must sell their particular circumstances and define their once-passionate history to give the story stakes. The dialogue in the original Scenes was so realistic, and the performances from Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson so believable, that the series’ popularity is suspected to have led to record-high divorce rates in Sweden (though the myth is impossible to prove).

Levi’s script is similarly raw—even during fights, the characters use terms of endearment, exposing their intimacy. If only he’d left his actors alone. Chastain and Isaac are the last performers to need a director’s flourishes to enhance their roles. The pair exude steamy chemistry; they were college friends at Juilliard and played a married couple in 2014’s A Most Violent Year. In Scenes, Chastain is perfectly cast as Mira, a high-strung tech-company executive wrestling with the guilt of being more available for her job than for her daughter; Isaac embodies Jonathan, a philosophy professor and the family’s homemaker struggling with his unconventional role. Together, they deliver anguished, nuanced portraits that are diminished by Levi’s interruptions.

Breaking the fourth wall can be an effective device in marriage stories: In the singer Kacey Musgraves’s film Star-Crossed, the move emphasizes the theatricality of her Shakespeare-inspired project. The opening number in Leos Carax’s surreal musical, Annette, which directly addresses the audience, underlines the contrast between reality and the fantastical narrative. But Levi’s use just comes off as misguided.

Perhaps the writer-director was worried his remake wouldn’t stand apart from the original, a seminal piece of television that inspired a torrent of similar projects; in addition to Marriage Story, recent works about the same subject include the third season of Master of None, the series State of the Union, and the film Malcolm & Marie. But some stories work best as pure fiction, especially now, when the pandemic has exposed the seams of television and film production at every level—and especially in a show with top-tier actors who can easily captivate their audience, whether on a red carpet or a set. When it comes to any marriage story, the relationship between the viewers and what they’re watching should not be as complicated as the one being portrayed on-screen.