Opinion

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac give an acting masterclass in Scenes From a Marriage

Their characters and relationship are totally convincing, even though you can see it's not real

There is a pervasive belief that the highest compliment you can pay an actor is that they "disappeared" into their role — that the best acting is when you can't tell that the actor is acting at all.

That's hooey.

The best actors are, above all else, cunning salespeople. Their job is to sell complete strangers on joining them in the child's game of pretending that they're someone we know they're not. The actor's craft isn't the same as an illusionist's — making the strings disappear — but of seductively inviting an audience to ignore an otherwise obvious reality. "Putting aside will and intellect," the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once said of watching films, "we make way for it in our imagination."

Writer/director Hagai Levi's remake of Bergman's 1973 miniseries Scenes From a Marriage debuts on HBO on Sunday, and like many of Bergman's own films, could be accused of being too theatrical. By that charge, one presumably means it has a kind of perceptible construction to it: the sets have the rigidity of stages, and the main characters — in Levi's remake, philosophy professor Jonathan and his successful tech executive wife of 10 years, Mira — are "played" by actors as recognizable as Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. But Scenes From a Marriage is a spectacular showcase of the duo's immense acting chops, and all the more so because Levi reminds you that it's all pretend.

Like the 2019 film Marriage Story, Scenes From a Marriage has a somewhat cynical title; the series is not so much an examination of a successful union as it is an exploration of (in Levi's words) "how traumatic a separation is, usually, in the course of human life." Aside from a few subtle but significant tweaks to Bergman's original story — including condensing the Swedish director's six episodes to a total of five — the 2021 remake of Scenes From a Marriage otherwise mostly follows in the footsteps of the original. That fidelity actually adds to the theatrical quality of the adaptation, making it more like a Broadway revival where the appeal is the actors' performances, more than it is the promise of a wholly original story.

To that end, though, you couldn't cast a better pair than Isaac and Chastain. While both have appeared in a number of less-engaging projects as of late — Isaac being underutilized in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and Chastain in It: Chapter Two and Dark Phoenix — the two are nevertheless among the best Americans working on screen today. Chastain did her most mesmerizing work in the early 2010s in The Tree of Life and Zero Dark Thirty, while Isaac's performances in Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, and Ex Machina earned him a worthy #14 spot on The New York Times' list of the greatest actors of the 21st century. As Mira and Jonathan, they still have plenty of Big, Important Monologues to showcase their raw acting abilities and perhaps win them a few Emmys, but the pair's real skill is in all that isn't said. (If you need proof of their unspoken chemistry, allow me to point you to this viral red carpet video). Scenes From a Marriage is difficult to watch as a result, because Chastain and Isaac convince you to buy into every part of their characters and their relationship; there is a deeply intimate and uncomfortable element to their performances, like you're watching a pair of close friends have an ugly argument at your dinner table.

Compounding this effect is the way Levi brings the audience behind the scenes. Nearly every episode of his Scenes From a Marriage begins on the soundstage for the show, with a documentary-style camera following Chastain or Isaac into their scene, capturing all the last-minute preparations by the masked crew scurrying through the background. The camera continues shooting through Levi's call of "action," so you actually get to experience the almost-but-not-quite-imperceptible transition of Chastain into Mira, or Isaac into Jonathan. It's a thrill akin to sitting at such an angle in a theater that you can see the cast tense in preparation in the wings before taking the stage. 

Levi's decision to boldly include his show's "strings" in such a way might sound like hubris, indicative of his complete confidence in selling you on the story. The effect, though, is greater, giving a literalness to the "scenes" of Mira and Isaac's marriage, and also complicating the way we are witnesses to the characters' tragic performances to each other as husband and wife. Yet even the audience's awareness of the stage is a bit of a trick by Levi; Scenes From a Marriage is still entirely a product of television since such backstage moments would of course be impossible in an actual theater, and the show relies heavily on deliberate cinematography and editing, intentionally holding for one character's line delivery, or another's wince. 

But by revealing to the audience the artificiality of the show, Levi allows for us to witness a true masterclass in the art of authentic acting. There is no safety net here, nor is there ever an attempt at the cheap illusion that Chastain the actress has somehow "vanished" into Mira (since she's just been called "Jessica" by a crewmember on camera moments before stepping onto the set). Rather, we are presented with Chastain and Isaac's honest, wrenching, uncomfortable, and raw presentations of their characters — presentations so skillful, indeed, that we willingly and knowingly accept as truth what is only pretend.

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