Jojo Whilden / HBO
It’s only fitting that the best promotion for the upcoming HBO premiere Scenes from a wedding was a seemingly frank exchange between her stars. Slow-motion clip, which has gone viral, shows Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac share an electric moment on the red carpet at the Venice International Film Festival. The reason this is so fitting is that this is a series that revolves almost entirely around how you want to see these two really good actors working together, scene after scene, with little to distract from their work. .
The original Scenes from a wedding miniseries broadcast on Swedish television in 1973. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, it told the story of a couple whose marriage collapsed over the course of several years. It was then condensed into a feature film released worldwide.
In this five-part version, created and written by Hagai Levi, Isaac and Chastain play Jonathan and Mira, who are still together at the start of the series. He’s a philosophy professor and she’s a technical executive, and they have a little girl they both love. Soon after we meet them, their marriage begins to fall apart. They get involved with other people, there are old resentments and there are constant changes as to which of them, if either, wants to save the relationship. This is the story, really.
What Scenes from a wedding feels like, more than anything, is an exercise in naked acting. It has a limited supporting cast (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie play a couple that Jonathan and Mira are friends with in the first episode, and that’s the most you’ll see from anyone else) and it almost unfolds. entirely in their home. Is the series cramped and stressful, despite or because of? how much it’s just two people talking (and fighting).
When Jonathan and Mira are at their worst, it’s tempting to see this as an extension of HBO’s series of shows about horrible rich people being… horrible and rich. To a certain extent, that is it. But the tone is much more intimate and less satirical than in something like The white lotus Where Succession, and the emphasis is so much on this one marriage that it doesn’t sprawl out these shows. It also doesn’t provide the opportunities other shows do to bring different characters together. Instead, you’re trapped with just these two and their arguments and spiraling misery.
The upside of the narrow focus is that Isaac and Chastain are fantastic performers who, and we come back to that red carpet clip here, really have great chemistry. The negative side is that none of the writings raise questions about the marriage that seem fresh enough to make the story particularly interesting. For all that the actor is exceptional, the story feels relatively pedestrianized.
At the time the original Scenes from a wedding was done, there was much less of an established genre of painful divorce drama than we have now. It was beforeKramer vs. Kramer and pre-War of the Roses, to name just two American stories with very different nuances. Seeing a marriage go downhill, seeing people light up against each other about every horrible thing that ever happened is nothing new, and 2021 is not the year of 1973 for divorce in the United States or Europe. Even reality TV has blunted some of the sharp edges of a show that feels like eavesdropping.
One of the curious choices Levi makes is to include small introductory clips before each episode in which Chastain and Isaac arrive on set. Scenes from a wedding was shot during the pandemic, so during those times you see all the masks, all the distancing, all the other precautions. You see Chastain being brought to work by her driver, being called “Jess”, turned on and even hearing the call to “action”. These little pieces are certainly meant to make Something, but we don’t know what. In the absence of any other goals, they seem uncomfortably like efforts to emphasize how serious the project is and how serious its accomplishment is and how serious the task of remaking Bergman is.
I don’t think the people who sit down with this show will regret the time spent with these actors. There are times that really make an impact, and there is a good working light and a shot of the house to highlight the state of the relationship. (In one scene, Chastain appears to blend into the wall so seamlessly that she’s an unhappy beige blur.) But don’t expect to leave this show with a lot to pack on marriage or relationships. As much as anything, it is a study of how banal the curdling of love really can be.
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