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‘Scenes from a Marriage’: Emmy bait or art?

| Friday, September 17, 2021

Claire Reid | The Observer

Lovers of sophisticated divorce dramas — rejoice!

Anyone who enjoyed the Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story,” “Blue Valentine” or “Her” will be enthralled by HBO’s highly anticipated “Scenes from a Marriage” miniseries. The first episode, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, finally aired on the network (and its streaming service, HBOMax) last Sunday. Director Hagai Levi’s reboot is based off of Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish TV miniseries of the same name, which was rumored to have spiked Swedish divorce rates because of its raw portrayal of relationship issues. Filmed nearly 50 years after the original, this reboot aims to offer a fresh take on modern relationship challenges (and hopefully help us improve our relationships, not destroy them). 

All the media buzz from the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival makes the series seem like a sure-fire candidate at the Emmys. “Scenes from a Marriage” definitely leans into this aggrandizement, demonstrating a degree of arrogance. The opening long shot of Jessica Chastain — frantically rushing around the set, distracted by coffee-holding assistants — gives an air of a theater performance before lights up. However, this framing device only serves as a gesture at the significance of the production, rather than an artistic liberty that enhances the content of the series. Even Chastain’s brief explanation of a scene on HBOMax perpetuates this pretentiousness. Instead of having faith in the audience, she seems to insist that the scene is very deep without implying it through the scene. The marketing around the series makes “Scenes from a Marriage” seem self-important, but does it live up to the hype?

The first episode is visually stunning despite the mundane setting of a domestic suburban home. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh does an excellent job at giving “Scenes from a Marriage” a dreamy, photographic quality. The camera work highlights the phenomenal performances from Oscar Isaac as Jonathan, a philosophy professor and Jessica Chastain as Mira, a tech executive. The subtle raise of an eyebrow, a hesitation in line delivery or a change in body language all hint at the electric dynamic between the married couple and show the palpable chemistry between the actors. Meanwhile, the close-ups allow viewers to have moments of privacy with the characters during the episode’s pensive moments.

The dynamic between Jonathan and Mira challenges audiences to explore the changing gender roles of complicated modern relationships. With Mira out-earning her husband, Jonathan works from home to take care of their 4-year-old daughter, Ava. In this case, the traditional gender roles of bread-winner and homemaker are flipped. The dynamic works out well. After all, both partners are able to pursue their respective careers and build a family together. Their relationship, from the outside, seems to be generically warm and successful. Underneath the surface, however, there’s a tension that seems to be growing stronger. It will be interesting to see how the series develops and explores the impact of their careers on both their identities and their relationship. 

While the relationship between Jonathan and Mira is at the forefront of the series, the couple really shines when interacting with their friends, Peter (played by Corey Stoll) and Kate (played by Nicole Beharie). Peter and Kate, as opposed to Jonathan and Mira, are in an open marriage. This passionate couple acts as a direct contrast to our stoic leads. Unlike the protagonists, Peter and Kate’s relationship issues are brought explosively to the surface at a dinner party. Through contrast, “Scenes” seems to say that open relationships are passionate yet explosive, while monogamous relationships are dependable yet stifling.

This first episode doesn’t have me wondering whether “Scenes from a Marriage” is worth of an Emmy. Instead, I think about how we love other people. Should our relationships be built on a foundation of dependability and commitment, or should we succumb to the power of our passions? How do we balance these things that seem so mutually exclusive?


Show: “Scenes from a Marriage,” Episode 1

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain

If you liked: “Marriage Story,” “Blue Valentine”

Where to watch: HBOMax

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5 shamrocks

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a sophomore at Notre Dame majoring in Political Science and English with a minor in Chinese. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas when she isn't hanging out at Pasquerilla East Hall.

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