KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 6 — HBO’s latest offering Scenes from a Marriage may not be the ideal lockdown viewing material but the television series is a beautiful piece of art that explores the complexities of matrimony and the gamut of emotions that come with the territory.
The modern adaptation of legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s acclaimed miniseries of the same name looks at love, hatred, desire, monogamy, marriage and divorce through the lens of a contemporary American couple, played by Hollywood heavyweights Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.
The two Juilliard classmates are reunited on-screen after starring in the 2014 crime drama film A Most Violent Year.
If Bergman’s original became the alleged culprit of rising divorce rates across Europe almost five decades ago, the 2021 version brought to you by Hagai Levi, the award-winning creator of The Affair wants to show viewers the consequences of ending a marriage.
“I wanted to speak about the price of separation — I think it’s something the people in the culture we’re living in don’t talk a lot about,” Levi said in a recent Zoom press conference Malay Mail attended.
“But if I want something to happen, it’s that the unbearable lightness of separation, of getting divorced will be reconsidered.”
Fans of The Affair, dubbed the Rashomon of relationship dramas, will know Levi’s style by now — no one writes dialogues that capture the complexities of relationships almost to a microscopic level quite like he does which viewers will once again see in Scenes from a Marriage.
Asked what his secret was to nailing interpersonal relationships perfectly, the Israeli director said it recently dawned on him that he cannot write bad people, something he self-effacingly calls a “limitation” and “a problem sometimes”.
“Most of the TV series today, you see a lot of bad people or immoral people or corrupt people because this is the basics and I don’t know how to do that.
“I have to understand completely why a person would do something to see the complexity in it, in a sense almost to justify what the character does,” he said.
Whether it’s The Affair which explores what happens when good people commit adultery or Our Boys, the HBO series about a hate crime, there is an enormous amount of empathy for human fallibility in Levi’s storytelling.
“Maybe that’s the secret, that it’s impossible for me to write something if I cannot really identify him and that makes him immediately complicated,” he added.
Evolving gender roles
In the series, Chastain (The Help, It Chapter Two) plays Mira, a confident and ambitious tech executive left unfulfilled by her marriage while Isaac (Dune, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) takes on the role of Jonathan, an accommodating, hyper-intellectual philosophy professor desperate to keep their relationship intact.
The underlying theme of the series is best summed up by the opening scene where Mira and Jonathan are being interviewed by a PhD student researching couples where the woman is the primary provider and how that affects monogamous marriages.
“We’re in an interesting time in society where a lot of women are the breadwinners of their families and sometimes, I guess there’s some shame in that,” Chastain said.
“They feel embarrassed, ‘I don’t want to emasculate my husband, I don’t want to make them feel bad’, so they make themselves smaller at home because they want their husband to feel like he’s the king in the house.
“But what happens is if you want to go home and if you have to make yourself small, that’s not a healthy relationship and I think we see that with Mira in the beginning.”
The 44-year-old Zero Dark Thirty star whose husband is Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo said she is thankful she married a confident and supportive partner whom she would never have to diminish her achievements for.
“I really just learned to live in every success that I have because that actually only helps a relationship,” she said.
Selling an emotional watch
Shot in October last year during Covid-19, the show interestingly is being released at a time where many couples are forced to stay home and, in some cases, forced to stay together.
According to a Bloomberg article, it was initially thought that the stresses of Covid-19 would drive divorce rates up but a sharp decline in divorce took place instead.
This doesn’t mean couples are necessarily happier but the pandemic may be forcing spouses to remain together for practical reasons during economic uncertainty.
“One thing I do love about this series is, I know there are so many interpretations of it, I find it to be an incredible love story,” said Chastain.
“The ending I find so beautiful and that certain types of love include owning and possessing someone and other love don’t and I think that’s the most beautiful love when it’s given freely with no expectations and no ownership.”
While her co-star Isaac wouldn’t try to convince anyone who doesn’t want to watch the series, he believes the show might be a good release for audiences.
“Sometimes for me, hearing a really sad song can be very cathartic, you know? Sometimes it feels really good to get in touch with that feeling and this definitely goes there,” he said with a laugh.
“So sometimes that can be helpful because you feel less alone, you feel like ‘Yeah okay somebody gets it, somebody gets how difficult that can be or how hard it is’.
“That rings true and so you feel connected a bit more but if someone doesn’t want to see it, they shouldn’t.”
Scenes From A Marriage debuts the same time as the US on Monday, September 13 at 9am exclusively on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Ch 411), with a same-day encore at 10pm on HBO.