this time on Kaput, love and marriage on the TV, going back to the office, and floating in space
At the Venice International Film Festival of September 2021, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac shared an intimate moment on the red carpet. As the actors posed for photographs, promoting their new TV miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, Isaac kissed Chastain’s bare arm, her inner bicep, romantically and delicately – like a lover. In response, Chastain tenderly took Isaac’s face in her hands and – says Vanity Fair – set the internet on fire.
Two days after the fire, Chastain’s clarification confirmed that she and Isaac are both happily married – to other people. Their intimacy on the red carpet, it turns out, was a playful elaboration of an on-screen chemistry derived from being good friends for over twenty years.
The actors originally met as students starting out. In Scenes from a Marriage, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s miniseries from the 1970s, Chastain and Isaac play a beautiful forty-something couple who similarly first connected at college. But now, after many fruitful years married, Mira and Jonathan are set to fall hard from the matrimonial bough.
As the long-term couple collapse into pieces, they not only struggle with break-up shock, but struggle to keep their hands off each other. For never in the long history of relationships has estrangement included this many hugs and kisses. Never ever in his life as a man has he experienced a coming apart like he just saw on his big screen TV. (And he’s known a few endings.) Over seven emotionally arduous years, Mira and Jonathan consciously uncouple; they live apart; they become legally separated, divorced and moved on with new homes, new cities and new partners; one of them even re-marries. And yet throughout, frequently gazing deep into each other’s eyes, the pair remain romantically entwined.
Mira and Jonathan’s dissolution also features lies and infidelity, excoriating hard truths, and moments of cold indifference in the face of the other’s suffering. But the 2021 version of Scenes From a Marriage is not piercing in the way that the Swedish original was piercing. On its release in 1973, Bergman’s scorched earth Scenes From a Marriage was widely condemned for contributing to rising divorce rates in Sweden – by depicting not only a fictional marriage imploding bitterly in close detail, but conveying the idea that all marriages and marriage itself as an institution was irretrievably broken, kaput.
Smashing the Fourth Wall
Directed and co-written by Israeli filmmaker Hagai Levi, Scenes From a Marriage 2021 is set in East Coast USA during our current moment. Scene One begins with Jonathan and Mira being interviewed about what it means to be married. But before the interview convenes, the episode opens with an attention-capturing preliminary of Jessica Chastain arriving onto the film set.
Flowing camerawork tracks an unmasked Chastain as she walks down a dark passageway accompanied by a masked gopher, through double doors and onto a brightly-lit film set that is loud, hectic and disorienting.
For days after, he keeps thinking about this episode prelim, smashing the fourth wall. The handheld camera hangs on to Chastain as she navigates in and out of the sound studio’s back-end spaces via a complicated series of temporary way findings. Chastain strides left, then right, then straight ahead, weaving past props, cameras, mic booms and several masked crew – designers and technicians busy setting the scene.
Turning corners, going under and up a set of metal steps, past false walls containing a suite of make believe domestic spaces – make believe bedrooms, make believe open-plan kitchen, diner, and lounge – Chastain continues along a tastefully-decorated landing as far as a winged crocus armchair positioned next to a pretend picture window. The picture window looks out onto a painted screen depicting a large front yard leading to a typical residential street beyond.
Chastain’s body double wordlessly vacates the armchair as the real Chastain takes over. The actor surrenders her coffee beaker to her gopher and removes all of her personal jewellery; then puts on Mira’s wedding ring as the camera swings round to catch Chastain’s face from front on.
A bell rings on set. The camera assistant comes into frame wielding an electronic clapperboard with a digital slate displaying the name of the production, the director, the scene about to be performed, and which take number. At the last moment, Chastain slips off a pair of dark ear pods; and with the scene pulled into focus the assistant director calls Action!
Chastain is now Mira. For several seconds Mira sits still and silent, staring into nowhere. Although performing a calm repose, an almost imperceptible flicker suggests she’s on edge, preoccupied with a thought she can’t shake. Mira’s delicate face glows while also frowning as she stands and moves away from the window. The camera follows as she heads down two short flights of stairs, through a couple of doorways and onwards into a large room with facing sofas where the interview is set to begin.
Sixty minutes from now, as Scene One of Scenes From a Marriage closes out, Mira will be laid upon a hospital bed in a white and blue hospital room, alone under a sheet and in tears.
Scene Two of Scenes From a Marriage also opens with a prelim filmed from behind the stage curtain. This time Oscar Isaac is followed closely by a hand-held camera as he crosses a hectic terrain. The studio soundstage features blurry crew members in glowing white masks stood in front of a vast painted backdrop. The painted backdrop represents a wintry exterior beyond Jonathan and Mira’s house during a snowstorm and is drenched by an eerie green light as a blow machine sprays fake snow across the set.
This buzzing back office of pretence teems with an infrastructure not quite of this world – strange, serpentine conduits, transitional in-between passages leading to the dreamscape and another state of mind.
A masked gopher appears before an unmasked Isaac. The gopher also has on a long plastic visor. He hands Isaac an MP3 player saying ‘press play here’ as another camera picks up on the actor from the front as he heads down, then left, and left again, approaching a camera gantry, where series director Hagai Levi stops looking through a viewfinder and joins the actor as they advance together into the warmly-lit, imaginary marital bedroom, where the next scene will begin.
The backstage walk-throughs are quick and busy and so visually complicated they defy encapsulation. But the masks you don’t miss. All crew members wear face coverings. But not the two actors. Traditionally actors assume masks as part of the performance. However for each episode of Scenes, through numerous extended takes long on intimacy and dialogue and much expressive breathing, Chastain and Isaac are exposed. Should we be concerned? Are the maskless leads a couple of vulnerable thesps, or two beautiful godlike creatures exempt from mortality?
Levy drapes his arm on Isaac’s shoulder and listens attentively as the actor makes a point about how best to open the fridge in a scene coming up. As Levy nods in agreement, Isaac takes his position on the bed and places the MP3 buds into his ears. A voice off screen says ‘let’s slate it’ as the clapperboard comes into frame. The director shouts Action!
And at the next beat we are transported to late night inside the family home, with Isaac pretending to be Jonathan, listening to classical on his music device. Visual clues indicate that apart from his young daughter asleep upstairs, Jonathan is home alone, contentedly enfolded inside the warm haven he and his wife have made together. This is a safe space where nothing terrible could ever happen.
As rising orchestral strings leak from his earbuds, Jonathan has no awareness of the bomb about to go off. That he will never feel secure again. Mira is two minutes away from unexpectedly coming though the door to announce she’s quitting the marriage. That she has a lover and she and her lover are booked on tomorrow’s early flight to Tel Aviv – where Mira plans to be based with her work for the next six months. The carnival is over and Mira’s moving on. When she gets back from Israel, Mira advises her husband, she will be moving out for keeps.
Scene Two of Scenes From a Marriage ends early morning with Mira dragging a fat suitcase out into the snow, heading for her Uber and out of here. The Scene Two end titles are printed across a montage of exteriors showing the couple’s semi-suburban home dipped in snow.
With each instalment of Scenes an hermetic psychodrama of interiors – the two leads moving in and out of corridors, rooms, landings and hallways, looking for their lost connection – outside there’s always signal ‘weather’ as backdrop. Always some kind of weather: major rain, snow, or sun; picture book spring, autumn and winter. Weather as reminder of a world beyond the consuming marital breakdown, and weather outlining a clear space for the couple’s unravelling.
The prelim to the third instalment of Scenes From a Marriage has the camera barrelling urgently across the sound stage, through thickets of props and crew, past sheets of black tarpaulin and thin partition walls made of balsa.
The prelim is blurry and smudged with intermittent dark and glare. As the music hurries up a mini crescendo, the lens surges down a short corridor and jumps through a window, taking us inside Jonathan and Mira’s lounge, where an agitated Jonathan awaits his estranged wife’s return.
As he transcribes these episode prelims, the rapid getting in and out of physical spaces, he reflects on the challenge of starting a new sentence and getting through to the end in reasonable shape. Stitching that sentence to the next sentence. Compiling and concluding a paragraph then finding the best way to start the next one.
Assembling a prose structure, joining experience together in words. This is perhaps the worst and best part of typing. Too many choices and so many words. He worries some sentences go on too long, becoming so prolix you can see their tails hanging out the back of his head.
Back to the Office
Over three consecutive evenings, he watches the five hours of Scenes From a Marriage. And on the morning of the fourth day he leaves his TV and the marital angst behind as he rolls down the hill on his bike, headed for work.
The autumn sun is in his eyes and the kerbsides are clogged with wet, slippery leaves he absolutely needs to stay away from. As he takes the right bend near the top of the hospital, he wishes the stream of cars didn’t come in so close to him so fast, plotting in his head the best route to the new workplace bang in the heart of town.
It’s back-to-the-office time, Week One. After nineteen months working from home through the boring apocalypse, he’s crossing over to a new hybrid model with the bullshit job split fifty-fifty between his front room up on the hill and a new desk all the way down here.
For nineteen months, home into work was four lanky sideways steps from kitchen to table. But today, early morning, just getting around the shiny new office building is an intelligence test. Myriad floors, doors, and convoluted corridors. Two sets of stairs, three banks of elevators.
Today and tomorrow and into next week, he is subject to the strategy of the architect. He hasn’t any tactics yet – no short cuts or work-arounds – as he negotiates the intricate guts of the new building, coming through the side entrance and down to the lower basement to stash his bike. As he goes right, then left down another unfamiliar corridor, moving from the back end to front end of the edifice. Onwards through two sets of double doors, followed by four floors up. Through another set of double doors, past the elevator lobby and into the huge open-plan workspace. As he passes the bleachers and beyond the funky ‘break-out spaces’, over to the coffee point and down along the four desks banks, finally arriving at his designated work station, with its twin screens and standing desk option. As finally the labyrinthine obstacle course is completed, he sees how three nights bingeing on Scenes From a Marriage, three nights in and out of make-believe rooms and corridors, has perhaps turned his brain a bit circuitous.
On this first day back, he’s the office early bird – the first arrival this side of the fourth floor.
He puffs out his cheeks surveying his new workstation, its pristine desk a white void. He wonders how would it be to lie down right here and flop for five, rather than grudgingly taking out the work Thinkpad, scratching his chin trying to recall what office service lead to plug into which port of the laptop. Battling with the levers of his ergonomic chair while configuring his multiple displays so they co-ordinate – the cursor sliding seamlessly across screens.
All this navigating and planning. So much tech and thinking. All the taxing questions coming back into circulation. Do I look okay? Seriously, when did he last give a hoot how he looked doing this job? Are my clothes right? Is there anything wrong with my trousers? The hair? (Okay, forget the hair.) Am I standing wrong? Why am I holding my head this way? Did I always balance with my ankles crossed? What happens if I fall over because I forgot how to remain vertical in a public setting? What about it though? And what if I cough?
Globally it’s high up there as a shared anxiety. Whatever happens today, make sure his first blunder back to work isn’t cough-related. And if you must cough, don’t execute like the guy who just arrived at the far end of the desk bank.
His first morning back into the office, the next person through the door arrives coughing furiously, like it’s a post-Covid workplace satire. Heartily the guys ploughs through the double doors almost hawking. Pulling a plum wheelie case, fresh off the early train from London, mouth agape, coughing straight into shared space – no elbow or hand-shield.
The guy looks new to the business but has that ring of confidence already. The trick is to hate him not for being important but simply his poor hazardous cough management. He could’ve easily made a toilet pit-stop, cleared out his throat. Couldn’t he? But, no, instead it’s croak, croak. And also bark bark, loudly, into his mobile, for a very important phone call that can’t wait. And slam, slam the mini locker door, open and shut. Barking. Coughing. Slam the locker for a third time. Because he forgot something. Slam it a fourth time. Because now he’s got the thing he forgot. Slam, bark, cough, cough.
Fifteen minutes in the new workplace, how’s the mental health?
A long time ago, social theorist Theodor Adorno categorised door slamming as the product of an ‘authoritarian mindset’. After he fled Europe in 1938, Adorno first moved to New York. But by November 1941 had settled in Brentwood, Los Angeles, where the Frankfurt theorist found the acoustics not to his liking, resenting LA folk for being serial door slammers – from car door to front entrance to fridge, ’the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment.’
The Annoying Son had a phase of ‘hard-hitting’ doors during the adolescent years. Flinging the bathroom wide open and shut extra loud. The fridge crashing, cupboards and cabinets nearly assaulted. If he commented, the Annoying Son said, don’t worry, it’s fine. He could perhaps have charged his teen successor with ‘fascist maltreatment of doors’. But is that parenting?
The fourth episode prelim for Scenes from a Marriage features Jessica Chastain chauffeured to a residential location. In the back of the car, the actor runs lines soundlessly from a script, her lips moving but not saying anything, as the vehicle heads for Jonathan and Mira’s old home.
Scene Four takes place on completion day of their house sale. Jonathan and Mira meet at the property to co-sign documents finalising disposal and their divorce. But Mira hesitates. After largely leaning-in during a movie career playing can-do characters, Chastain conveys fragility under fire from a Jonathan who’s run out of patience. The exes squabble then spiral into a violent row from which there can be no way back surely.
Chastain looks up from her script as the car waits at a junction then eases forward and back into the flow. She stares out the window at a bright cold morning as they arrive down a street lined with production trucks and crew. The car pulls to the side of the road and a masked gopher steps forward to open Chastain’s door, as we rapid-cut to a black screen with the episode title ‘The Illiterates’ printed in white script.
In the near distance a neighbourhood dog’s barking as Chastain’s heels can be heard across the tarmac. The screen alights upon the front of the house with Mira coming into view, striding up the path, dressed in a leather coat, approaching the front door and talking imploringly to her daughter by cellphone. The close-up camera switches to side-on and tracks Mira’s right profile as she takes the front steps then crosses the porch and heads through the front door. At which moment, although Chastain appears to enter the real-life house, she’s now inside its soundstage replica, from where the rest of the episode is filmed.
Chastain shifting gear out of normal into fantasy reminds him of coming to America for the first time and something he saw on Broadway. He was eighteen and was taken to the theatre for Amadeus with Ian McKellen. On arriving to their seats, only half a dozen rows away from the stage, he still remembers the expectant buzz across the auditorium.
The stage set is plain – just a single period armchair positioned with its back to the audience and a dummy propped inside. Over the next thirty minutes the audience settle into their seats and the hubbub and chat gradually falls away as the theatre lights are dimmed. At last everything is quiet, with all eyes to the front. Silence. The play is set to begin.
The inert prop dummy in the armchair twitches and shifts then starts to rise. Suddenly the dummy leaps to its feet as a sprightly Ian McKellen spins round and strides towards the front row, smiling, his hands held wide apart. In the role of Salieri, the ebullient lead radiates a high-beam glamour as he directly addresses the audience, outlining what they are about to witness.
The actor had been sat there all that time, motionless for thirty minutes, immaculate as a statue as the audience drifted in. McKellen’s simple piece of stagecraft wowed his narrow eighteen-year-old scepticism as instantly he got pulled inside the story.
In a largely praising review of Scenes From a Marriage, the Guardian’s TV critic disparages the episode prelims as smart-arse – recommending viewers fast-forward. It’s almost depressing how the critic’s missed the point. The prelims aren’t tricksy, they’re spatial. The repeat reminders of Mira and Jonathan’s break-up being a kind of theatre work to carry viewers away from here… and over to there – deep inside the drama’s essence as a ‘universal story of marital breakdown’.
No Direction Home
Having established the episode prelims as vital, the fifth instalment of Scenes From a Marriage actually doesn’t have one. The concluding Scene opens with Jonathan graveside at his father’s funeral, while in a different city, at an upscale restaurant, Mira waits to meet a former lover for their exit brunch.
Later the same day, she collects Jonathan off a commuter train in the old neighbourhood. They drive to their former home, which is now an AirBnB that Jonathan’s rented for the night. With this return to the idealised space, the ex-couple become intimate – the consummation of an erotic draw that’s been their structure of feeling through the years of estrangement.
After sex, the exes lie together in the attic conversion – the conversion they always planned but never got around to. They discuss various kinds of love while they gaze up through a heavenly skylight at a wide view of the stars. While the starscape is pretty, its aura of infinity, the scary ‘vast silence of outer space’, will get you in the end. In his midnight hour, cut adrift from his patriarchal father, dulled by his current relationship, and no longer married to Mira, the woman he thought he’d grow old with, Jonathan doubts the nature of attachment, existence, everything under the stars. In his whole life has he ever truly loved – or been loved in return?
The idealised space plainly eludes recovery. The end of Scenes finds the broken couple naked and entwined as dawn breaks. The director says Cut!
It is the end of the story. The camera however stays live as Isaac and Chastain rise naked from their bed and quietly robe-up.* After replacing character jewellery with their real-life wedding rings, the two leads leave the set arm in arm, relieved at a job well done, laughing, embracing, almost canoodling. We’re back in Venice again as Chastain and Isaac pause outside their dressing rooms for another loving and intimate embrace.
Why? It’s the funniest thing and he doesn’t understand. As he prepares to leave work and head north for home. As he clears his desk in line with company policy, he still fails to grasp the meaning. He lacks a properly plausible explanation for why Chastain and Isaac continue their tender loving routine out of character.
Feeling disappointed in himself that he doesn’t have the answer, he begins to wonder if the rest of his thoughts concerning the show have much value. Can he see clearly what’s trivial and inauthentic and what is weighty and carries meaning?
With his exit descent to the bottom of the office building begun, having cogitated this much, he feels owed some kind of insight. As he navigates the pass-protected double doors, the corridors and stairs, he suddenly recognises how he’s never been one for epiphanies. The lower he gets, the deeper the awareness of their absence from his life story.
He breathes out fast, the exhale short and sharp. Scenes From a Marriage features a flow of epiphanies, but how many does he get? And when was the last? Artists have them for breakfast. Friends, family and lovers get them too – crux meanings revealed in a flash of comprehension. He’d happily welcome Eureka! into his life. Would settle for the occasional moment of clarity. But maybe his brain doesn’t work like that, he thinks, as he steers his bike up to and out through the building’s side exit, directly onto the new cycle lane, peddling fast to the first set of traffic lights, already absorbed inside the narrow tunnel of his thoughts.
The cry for epiphany is something different to his usual moaning. Lately he has a hypnotherapist. He calls her Hypno and she says epiphanies count and could actually help his gut get better. He’ll do anything for his gut.
Within the hour, he’s home from work for the evening. Lying on the bed, hugging a large cushion to his belly, he listens carefully to Hypno on Zoom. From her practice room ten miles up the road (soft lighting, fresh lilies) Hypno encourages him to take a deep inhale, close his eyes, and leave his body behind.
Float up into space, she says. Let go, and give your consciousness permission to rise.
And so he lets go. He exits the corporeal enclosure and levitates approximately eight feet high in the air. Hovering at the same level as the picture rail, he looks down at the bed and considers his calm face lying there, his vacated body bag laid out on the textured white duvet.
As he hovers, Hypno speaks softly but assertively of cave men and polar bears; of his primitive brain and the redundant urge for fight or flight. She says he needs to rewind through the timeline of his life and locate his first ever memory of hurt and root out the pain for good. He thinks of the day he broke his leg. That hurt. She says, listen, this will make it better…
Once the process is completed, he descends back down onto the bed. With his body and consciousness reunited, he realises tonight will be his last session of hypnotherapy, as floating in space isn’t his thing.
The concluding segment of tonight’s meeting has Hypno reading him lines from a familiar script.
They’re on the move again, covering distance, as he imagines a beautiful flight of stairs taking him down to his ideal room. The stairs can be anything he wants them to be, she says. Stairs from a stately home he has visited before, or seen in a film, or on TV. Or stairs of his own creation.
His beautiful stairs are made from polished grey stone and descend to a shaded path. Flanked by jungly foliage, the shaded path leads to a white glass cube suspended over a tranquil oblong of blue water fringed by green forest. Although his ideal room is utterly banal, the cube of glass is pure luxury hanging there, awaiting his arrival.
But before the cube, Hypno guides him into a lobby with a tall clock inside a glass cabinet. The glass of the cabinet reflects the new improved him, she says, as they pause a moment to consider the relationship of time in space. Look at the clock! The interval between each tick of the timepiece, says Hypno, this is where life actually goes on. A space-place where we are real and we are alive.
A moment of clarity, finally
On an early lunch the following day, he walks from the office to an ornate Victorian shopping arcade, where inside a hip fashion store he buys a pre-selected item of clothing as part of the Annoying Son’s birthday present.
As he crosses the compact city centre, he notices a bank and realises it’s been months and that he should get some cash, because there are times, here and there, when you still need some. But his card is rejected by the ATM for being damaged and he feels himself damaged too.
He tries another money machine round the bend and the card works fine, providing a shot of reassurance. Feeling liquid again, something changes inside and at the clothes shop he lingers. What was scheduled as a quick in-and-out job lasts longer as he moves towards the striped tops as though pulled by a spendthrift higher power. He likes this blue and grey one, with its longs sleeves and soft brushed texture. He decides to buy it for himself, even though he has several similar items hanging up at home.
He tells himself it’s not precisely the same top as there are tiny but essential differences. He recalls something Flaubert said, that the objects we are drawn to are not haphazard, but material expressions of something intangible and vital that our soul wishes to bring to our notice. He thinks Flaubert is not so much saying to him, go on, buy the striped top, but encouraging a more attentive way of being in the world. And with this… With this.. Well, with this almost-epiphanic insight, he finds he’s lost all interest in making a purchase.
Leaving the fashion store behind, feeling lighter already, he heads across the arcade and into a cafe through a purple doorway; where he takes a seat with a wobbly table. The next pew along sits a man in Redwing boots surrounded by brown shopping bags and looking exhausted. Hanging in a gold frame on the wall above the wobbly table is a Victorian cartoon of a mouse riding a lobster. Across the aisle, a woman with red hair is leaning over the table facing a little girl. Over the girl’s milk and cake the woman pulls a funny expression. But the little girl, who has on a peppermint top, screws up her nose. I want to bite you, says the girl slowly to the woman.
By now his coffee is drunk and work cannot be put off indefinitely. He gets up to leave. Exiting the arcade with its chiming clock, he finds already he’s nostalgic for five minutes ago when he still had a coffee to finish. He recognises that his sorrow has no significant value and should be discarded.
End of 2021
* Chastain has discussed in interviews the value of on-set intimacy coordinator for sex scenes, but that also ‘Bourbon helped a lot.’ He imagines suggesting Bourbon at his work.
** No actual levitation took place during the writing of this blogpiece. Any floating in space was purely mental.