Scenes from a Marriage and When Romantic Partnerships Become Performances

TV Features Scenes from a Marriage
Scenes from a Marriage and When Romantic Partnerships Become Performances

The recently-concluded HBO series Scenes from a Marriage is a refreshed take on the 1973 Swedish Ingmar Bergman drama by the same name, written and directed by Hagai Levi and starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. In this updated version, Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) grapple with their relationship as it disintegrates. The prospect of facing their end forces them to confront their history, their partnership, and themselves as they try to disentangle from the fraying identity that they have built together.

If television (let’s be honest, especially HBO) is voyeuristic in nature, Scenes from a Marriage delivers the ultimate thrill. Watching a love story unfold is the favorite pastime of any television fan, but watching a couple peel back the layers of their connection to get to the bone and gristle of what draws them as well as repels them… that’s the ultimate undressing. The series lays bear the most intimate dramas of its central couple and gives the viewer the behind-the-scenes look at those moments that many couples in crisis politely hide. “Behind the scenes” also takes on a very literal meaning in Scenes from a Marriage, as the entire show frames the dramas within vignettes of performance.

Episodes of the series begin and end with our characters as actors, entering the space of a scene from their marriage. We see Jonathan and Mira rehearse lines in a script, accept notes and feedback, interact with a production crew, and traverse the immaculate set that is their home. The façade of a set seamlessly gives way to the drama of their lives, illustrating their marriage itself as a performance. Scenes from a Marriage, in this manner, boldly endeavors to illustrate marriage as the ultimate performance: a performance of external expectations of what a marriage should be; the performance of being a partner.

While we may culturally idealize marriage as a defining act of romantic commitment between two people, the reality is that marriage exists on a strange, very public plane of social expectations. Marriage is viewed at the cultural level as the ultimate end goal of committed couples, the ideal starting point for childrearing, and a milestone of adulthood that any functioning member of society is expected to reach. As members of a culture, there is a vested interest in encouraging the institution of marriage and a larger shared ritual of the ideals and expectations we attach to the union.

Marriage is simultaneously a declaration of undying love and passion, a legal classification, and for some a holy union. Marriages carry the burden of a promise that in one person we will find a lifetime of devotion and passion and that within our marriages we will have all of our needs met. We’ve been assigned our parts as breadwinner, household manager, co-parent, and lover. We’ve been given a cultural script of the tips, tricks, and traits that make for happy marriages. The role of the ideal spouse is fraught and the production of performing the perfect marriage a feat.

The first episode of Scenes from a Marriage is anchored in this notion of performing marriage to meet outer expectations. While being interviewed by a student who is working on a thesis about successful marriages, Jonathan and Mira are asked to give individual lists of personal identifiers. Jonathan’s list prioritizes his Jewish faith, his role as a father, and his status as an asthmatic. Mira speaks to her career and professional ambition. This introduction is quick, but it’s essential because this is the only moment in the entire conversation where the couple honestly lists their priorities without having to contextualize them. More tragically, it spells out in a bulleted list the individual priorities that will crack the foundation of their partnership.

As the interviewer’s questions constinue, Jonathan and Mira work to put their personal identifiers into a context that is palatable to social expectations of a marriage and partnership. The couple simultaneously makes excuses for and boisterously celebrates Mira as a breadwinner and a working mom, and Jonathan as the primary caregiver who earns significantly less as an academic. The tension is in the expectation to meet both traditional and progressive ideals, but beyond that initial list of personal priorities, every answer given is tinged with the unspoken pressure of how to be the right kind of married couple. We see this dynamic at play multiple times in the series. Before family, friends, and colleagues, there is a version of their marriage that Jonathan and Mira present together that is very different from the thoughts and interactions they share when they are alone.

That being said, marriage is not just a performance of societal ideals to an outside audience. In Scenes from a Marriage, Mira and Jonathan illustrate the performance that comes with being a spouse. The first of many pivotal moments in the series is the news that Mira is pregnant. When she reveals this news to Jonathan there is a—forgive me—heavily pregnant pause. She is waiting to see his reaction. He is waiting for a cue on how to react. Their conversation tentatively progresses along the razor’s edge of trying to meet a standard of how they should react, wanting to please the other, and also wanting to honestly communicate their wishes. The scene in their bedroom ends with a decision to keep the child, as they hold each other and get excited about possibility. The next scene is in an abortion clinic, in another performance.

In any partnership, there is sacrifice and a degree of disharmony. Two wholly unique and separate lives, rhythms, and perspectives have to meet. It’s an accepted part of marriage and relationships that there must be a give and take, an ability to bend because your partner needs you to. Naively, we hope that in a marriage these concessions are easily and joyfully given. Not always.

The tinderbox that sets the whole production aflame is Mira’s infidelity. In the second episode of the series, Mira comes home early from a business trip to confess to Jonathan that she has fallen in love with someone else and is leaving the marriage. In this moment, Mira is resolved in her decision and Jonathan is still desperate to keep the marriage together—this is illustrated in their respective “performance.” Mira begins to unpack her own performance—pretending to be happy, trying to go through the motions of their marriage, and the lies she told to friends and family to preserve the image of what they had. Jonathan’s performance is different. He is still in the role of the devoted spouse. He begs her to go to therapy with him, he’s calm, and he lovingly packs her suitcase out of habit. There’s a muscle memory, a choreography to their partnership. That does not negate, however, Jonathan’s own awareness of his performance. When Mira walks out the door, his demeanor shifts. The calm pleading is replaced with aggression and anguish. Even behind closed doors, he muffles his true emotions.

As Mira and Jonathan grow farther apart, on the path to separation, the set of their performance expands. The opening shots of the production crew go from inside the house, to the outside street and wider establishing shots. The performative drama of their lives is more out in the open. The performative nature of marriage is its own kind of security, because both parties are willing co-stars. Once you lose that, what’s the point of performing?

The penultimate episode of Scenes from a Marriage is the closest we get to seeing this couple outside of those aspects of their marriage. Jonathan and Mira find themselves in the broken down set of their former home, packed and on the path to new and separate lives. In the death rattle of their marriage, they have sex in the figurative ruins of their life as a married couple, and for the first time in the series step out of their performance. It’s an appropriately explosive revelation of their personal selves. On the precipice of divorce, they finally are able to pull back the curtain for each other.

Show’s over.

Scenes from a Marriage is now streaming in full on HBO Max.

Caitlin Kennedy is a freelance film critic, culture writer, and all around lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her work has been featured in The Mary Sue, Nerdist, Polygon, Daily Dead, and others. She loves a good bourbon and hates people who talk in movies, you can find her on Twitter @CaitDoes.

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