Last weekend Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain nearly broke the internet from a red carpet at the Venice Film Festival. The glammed up actors were posing for photos on the Lido when Isaac turned away from the paps to look at Chastain while her arm was languidly wrapped over his shoulder. Isaac suddenly let his hand brush against the inside of Chastain’s bare arm. As she turned to look at him, Isaac decided to make intense, smoldering eye contact with the actress before leaning in to kiss the inside of that very arm! Laughing, she took him into an embrace. Right there, in front of the whole wide world.
It was one of the most intensely sexy performances of either actor’s career and Twitter gobbled it up like a whole box of Dunkin’s munchkins.
The project the actors were promoting in Venice was the HBO miniseries Scenes from a Marriage. Based on the groundbreaking Ingmar Bergman series of the same name and updated by The Affair‘s Hagai Levi, this new take on the toll of matrimony is a showcase for Isaac and Chastain as artists. Watching it feels like being on stage with the actors during a theater show — and that’s clearly by design. Levi opens each episode following the actors past masked-up crew members and into a carefully constructed set of a suburban house. We are being invited into a world of grounded, heartbreaking performances. Indeed that seems to be the sole reason for Scenes from a Marriage‘s existence: to showcase the Juilliard-trained Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as two of the greatest actors of their generation.
Scenes from a Marriage tells the story of Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain), a couple who don’t yet realize they’ve reached an impasse in their relationship. The series opens on an academic’s interview with the couple. The woman (Sunita Mani) wants to probe Jonathan and Mira as they are a (seemingly) happy monogamous couple where the woman is the breadwinner. While Jonathan, a fellow academic, seems totally amused by the attention, tech exec Mira is obviously bothered by the probing questions. It is only later in the episode we learn she has become distracted by news of an unexpected second pregnancy.
When Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage premiered on Swedish television in the 1970s, it was heralded for its “realism.” It tackled the still somewhat taboo subject of divorce with tenderness and honesty. Perhaps in huge part because the story was meant to mirror Bergman and his leading lady Liv Ullmann’s real relationship. HBO’s new spin on the story is so gorgeously acted, though, you can’t stop thinking about the theatrics of it. The very thing that will hook you — Isaac and Chastain’s full-throttle performances — might also take you out of it.
Much like their sizzling display on the red carpet, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are putting everything they can into selling us on a portrait of intimacy in Scenes from a Marriage. But there’s something a tiny bit uncanny valley about it all. The way Chastain twitches throughout the opening interview or the way Isaac sadly hands his wife a can of Diet Pepsi to swallow her pills in the last scene feel true to life, and yet the drama of the first episode is culled together like a carefully scripted theatre show. The opening shots lifting the curtain on the production and an incendiary dinner table battle between another couple played by Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie only adds to this feeling. Everything is so “real” that it’s obviously a studied facsimile of real life.
Still, Isaac and Chastain are brilliant in Scenes from a Marriage. The miniseries offers the long-time friends and collaborators the chance to put both their technical craft and incandescent chemistry front and center. If you are a fan of watching Jon Lovitz voice *acting*, then you’ll love Scenes from a Marriage. Isaac and Chastain snap right back into that same level of intense intimacy they showed off at the Venice Film Festival. The only problem is watching those 51 viral seconds on the red carpet is a million times more fun than anything the actors give us in their HBO show. [nyp_brightcove playerid=”8pFHB1TaaP” videoid=”6268352500001″
Where to stream Scenes from a Marriage