Scenes from a Marriage (2021) by Hagai Levi is a remake of the 1973 Bergman miniseries of the same name (later packed as a movie), which turns out to have a big influence on a lot of film artists to this day. I saw Levi’s version. My impressions weren’t settled right away, but one thing was clear, I didn’t completely enjoy the show. And that is due to several factors.
Looking at the broader social context, divorce does not have the same weight as in the first half of the 80s, when the action of the original takes place, so the topic itself today has no wider echo, and it doesn’t stir up the audience. It is reduced to a simple, intimate story whose intimacy is sadly eliminated by the decision of the director and author Levi to include moments from the set and the crew wearing masks at the beginning of each episode as references to the pandemic, thus making us aware that this is just a TV show. This ultimately removes the feeling we get when the boundary between the real and the fictitious is lost. Тhe audience wakes up and realizes that those characters are not real people of flesh and blood who go through a roller coaster of emotions, but just actors acting. As a viewer, I cannot forgive Levy for that. I do not want to be aware that it is just a movie. When I enter the world of the seventh art, I want to be deceived.
The show is about a married couple in their 40s, whose relationship starts while they’re students. Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) is a philosophy professor, which gives him that benefit of extra time, so he is the one who takes more care of their daughter Ava and their home than his wife Mira (Jessica Chastain) does. She’s a vice president of a tech firm, makes big money and is often away from home. Mira is a completely different woman from the one who loved theatre and acting as a student. While she identifies herself through marriage, Jonathan doesn’t even mention marriage as an element through which he would determine himself. Through the questions from a Ph.D. student, we see the characters open, but also the introduction ends there. Jonathan’s character gets a little deeper through his past and his relationship with his father, the dialogue with his mother, and the fact that he is a Jew as a strong identity component which he always questions, even though he consciously distances himself from it. On the other hand, Mira’s character stays void of some greater essence.
In the opening scenes, you can feel dissatisfaction and stagnancy, lack of passion and excitement, something that is not too difficult to understand in a long relationship. However, concrete articulation of those feelings or background support of that condition is lacking. It’s just the way it is. I, as a viewer, need that part of the story. How does one get there, to that point of agony and hurt? A number of scenes moves you, primarily because of the incredible chemistry between Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, two amazing actors that I can constantly watch in every role whatsoever (they are, in fact, the only exciting element, the main trump card of the series). But at times, even they seem to have some difficulty articulating the emotions, and some hesitation can be seen. In my opinion, it has more to do with the development of their characters and the insistence of unnecessary complexity, which brings a certain amount of confusion from the beginning to the end. There are scenes deprived of a broader context that would give weight, more clarity and natural development of their parts. As a consequence, sometimes it is tough to develop empathy towards Mira and Jonathan in a story like this. In fact, according to the title, the show really depicts only scenes, dissecting specific segments of the relationship, but in such a pretentious manner that at times those scenes lose their spontaneity entirely.
Not to mention the other characters who paraded through the show remaining undeveloped. Their friends Kate and Peter appear in two episodes, but physically only in one, and quite tendentious. The author uses these two characters only to open the idea of open marriages. Not that that’s wrong unless it wasn’t so obviously intentional. Honestly, I had a feeling that the story was intentionally modernized without justifying such a solution. So, what happened to the characters? They were left unfinished, evaporating after they completed the given task. For example, what was the point of Mira’s kiss with her friend? Did it add something to the narrative?
In the last episode, the life of the ex-spouses is set in a different frame. Mira is single, something that should always have been her choice, because, as she says, she has no marriage genes, but still, if she is finally satisfied with the position she is in, what is she looking for with her ex-husband in their former home… And what about him, if he finally has a child that he wanted so badly and insisted on a few occasions, what is he doing there? The perpetual going away and coming back to each other wouldn’t have been argued if there was at least some consistency and continuity, even let that be their madness. We can’t see how this dead relationship suddenly resurrected, just like that. They are settled in their egocentric world, and everything revolves around them.
What is the purpose of other characters? Are they just decorum? After all, what about their daughter Ava? Who is she, how does she live, what does she want, did anything affect her? Jonathan’s new wife and child, are they just a side effect of his failed first marriage, a realization of his wishes, but without real passions, which is reserved only for Mira? And all this is justified with the tiredness of his previous insisting on moral superiority. Something isn’t right here.
But the magnetism between Mira and Jonathan… is hard to resist. And that’s all.