“I’m going to go out of my mind if I don’t leave right now.”
A wife drops that nuclear bomb with tearful, breathless urgency early in HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage. She’s a tech executive who’s come home early from a business trip to tell her philosophy professor husband she’s leaving him. “There’s nothing left to say,” she informs her shell-shocked spouse as he follows her upstairs begging for an explanation.
There is, of course, everything to say, and Mira and Jonathan, in virtuoso performances by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, say a whole lot of it over the course of the dialogue-intensive five-part HBO series about a marriage coming undone. The series debuted at the Venice Film Festival and hits HBO this Sunday, Sept. 12. It will also stream on HBO Max.
Recent HBO hits like Mare of Easttown and The White Lotus have unraveled the whys and whodunits of mysterious deaths. Scenes From a Marriage — an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s heralded 1973 Swedish television miniseries, later condensed into a theatrical release — mines far more nuanced enigmas: love, desire, monogamy, infidelity and the subjective nature of happiness. There are, after all, few mysteries as deep as the vagaries of the human heart.
It takes gumption to adapt a classic by a filmmaker with Bergman’s impact, but writer and director Hagai Levi (creator of another psychological drama, Israeli TV series BeTipul, which spawned HBO’s Emmy-winning In Treatment), delivers a series that mostly stands on its own as a modern retelling complete with iPhones, Airbnb and talk of gender roles and preferred pronouns. At the same time, it honors the spirit of the original with long, fraught conversations; lingering Bergman-esque close-ups; and a similar muted palette. Many plot points echo the original, too, including the characters’ names, with Mira and Jonathan standing in for Marianne and Johan. (Chastain, incidentally, bears a striking physical resemblance to Liv Ullman, though in this version, it’s the wife initiating the breakup.)
The HBO series, which tracks the upper-middle-class couple’s relationship over the course of several years, can feel relentlessly intense at times, even suffocating: Don’t expect a light pandemic distraction, or even a single laugh; this is more along the lines of Netflix’s searing Marriage Story, another relationship drama inspired by Bergman. Levi doesn’t deliver any particularly fresh insights, and five hours of marital strife is a lot to take. But viewers who hang on through the tender finale are likely to find reward in the excruciatingly honest exploration of the joys and challenges of long-term relationships — and in the work of two exceedingly skilled performers traversing exhausting, ever-shifting emotional terrain. This is a story about love falling apart, but it’s also a story about love reconfiguring itself.
Mira and Jonathan, 40-ish and balancing careers, parenthood and household responsibilities, live in a charming old Boston home with their daughter Ava, who’s in preschool. When we meet them in the first episode, they’ve been together 10 years and seem content enough — at least better off than their buddies Peter and Kate (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie), who’ve gone polyamorous in hopes of combatting their marital ennui and don’t even try to hide their disdain for each other in front of their squirming dinner hosts.
Soon, however, Mira’s strained facial expressions and tense body language reveal a dissatisfaction beyond day-to-day domestic annoyances — and her constant, furtive phone-checking suggests she’s texting someone she doesn’t want hubby to know about. The busy, cerebral Jonathan missed the signs of her misery, Mira tells him later, but viewers won’t.
For the first few episodes, it’s easy to detest the selfish Mira for upending the life of her accommodating husband, who desperately wants to salvage the marriage. Then there’s her daughter, whose world is about to crack open like a glass doll knocked off a dresser. But we gradually come to better understand Mira — and Jonathan — as we learn more about the past slights and recriminations that scarred them.
She, distrustful of love, watched her mother marry and divorce several times. He, emotionally guarded, often felt anxious and inadequate under the unyielding gaze of his dominant, judgmental father. As a young adult, he left behind the Orthodox Judaism of his childhood, and Mira blames his “religious hang-ups” for her lack of sexual fulfillment. He, not surprisingly, has a different view of their less-than-sizzling sex life. “It turns out all I needed was a woman who actually wanted me as I am,” he says during one of their many gut punching back-and-forths.
I wanted to know more about what motivated Mira to leave. Still, it’s a testament to Chastain’s acting that when we finally see glimmers of her warmth, empathy and capacity for growth as a partner and mother, we understand how Jonathan could feel so viscerally drawn to Mira again even after declaring, at the nadir of the marital crisis, “I don’t have feelings for you anymore. I’m sober. I’m inoculated.” Love and hate dance a delicate pas de deux.
To the credit of writers Levi and Amy Herzog, there are ultimately no clear-cut villains here, just flawed, complicated humans trying to understand themselves and each other. The two make mistakes, and try to fix them. They judge each other’s faults, then recognize similar faults in themselves.
“There’s no place in the world that would make me feel secure,” Mira tells Jonathan post-breakup in one of the first indications she may finally be cultivating a shred of self-awareness. The thrill of new lovers, promotions and fancy new high-rise apartments won’t cure Mira’s unhappiness. It has to be an inside job.