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A Tale of Two 'Scenes from a Marriage'

That gut-wrenching feeling you have while watching it is okay but needed, and you, the viewer, will be okay.

Filsan Ali
Filsan Ali
December 6, 2021

Insert: a meme of Oscar Isaac kissing Jessica Chastain's arm at the Venice Film Festival. The meme that sent the internet on fire was successful in drawing audiences to Director Hagai Levi's miniseries based on the 1970s Swedish miniseries of the same name.

Scenes from a Marriage is deeply uncomfortable to watch. This show focuses on the end of one marriage and, like all ends, who's wrong or right ceases to matter. It calls for a reflection of all the little choices that built the end result, like puzzle pieces.

A Tale of Two:

Top: Mira and Jonatahn (2021) Bottom: Marianne and Johan (1973)

Top: Mira and Jonatahn (2021) Bottom: Marianne and Johan (1973)

The 2021 miniseries starts with the camera tracking the back of Jessica Chastain's head as she walks through a lively set until the director calls "Action." Mira's on her phone, and she looks as though the weight of the world rests on her shoulders before she makes her way towards her family. The series brings up interesting questions regarding marriage. What role does passion play in our lives? Should you have to work on your marriage? Monogamy or non-monogamy? Emotional literacy and the role it plays in communication.

Mira (Chastain), a VP in tech, and Jonathan (Isaac), a philosophy professor- named after Marianne and Johan in the 1973 miniseries- are being interviewed by a friend for their Ph.D. thesis about gender norms and their manifestation in married couples. Johnathon follows the narrative arc closest to Marianne, and Mira follows the arc closest to Johan. Mira is the breadwinner, Jonathan is the caregiver, and that has been the role they've played for years. I wonder how their relationship has lasted as long as it has. So, when it's revealed that Mira is having an affair, we sympathize with her, whereas, in the 1973 series, we villainized Johan.

While I don't believe the director intended this while casting, or maybe he did, but the casting of Oscar Isaac brings up some interesting things regarding Latin/Hispanic culture and the role men play in their family dynamics. It is as though they didn't want to enforce those stereotypes onto Jonathan. Isaac handles the role with such vulnerability that isn't usually afforded to men of colour, but Jonathan isn't a man of colour, at least to my knowledge. He is Jewish, and it's his Jewishness that influences his worldview. It is his character left to pick up the pieces of his marriage. More so, Jonathan is the homemaker, and Mira plays the role of a financially present but emotionally absent mother and it's her dissatisfaction with the role she plays that brings the end.

How do you untangle yourself from someone you've spent a decade intertwining with? To adapt them for modern audiences, Levi felt compelled to flip the narrative arcs of each character. Can you truly ever separate? Mira and Jonathan spent many years completing their divorce. Mira and Jonathan have grown during the separation. What parts of your life harden over time and which soften? These are questions that Scenes from a Marriage asks of you.

The 2021 series adds another layer with the fourth wall breaking at the beginning and end of the first four episodes, and the last episode ends with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac walking off set hand in hand towards their characters' dressing rooms, asking us to remember that although these are actors, the struggles their characters faced are true, matter, and were real. That gut-wrenching feeling you have while watching it is okay but needed, and you, the viewer, will be okay. The disintegration of a marriage is as natural as the start of one.