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Why do we love watching broken relationships?

The popularity of Scenes from a Marriage and public consumption of divorces shows that we derive a level of satisfaction from watching couples openly tear each other apart
Thu, Nov 04, 2021

I will never forget where I was when I heard the news that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were getting divorced. The shock, the horror, the ending of what many believed to be the perfect marriage germinated so far into popular culture that it added fuel to the burning flame that was tabloid culture.

Immediately sources appeared out of the woodwork claiming to know the innermost details of their marriage, why things ended, if he cheated with Angelina Jolie, and so on. It was the perfect example of our fascination with divorce, which has been prevalent since the dawn of celebrity culture and has found its way into the content we consume as well.

Long before the end of Brad and Jen, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman released the six-part Scenes from a Marriage in 1973. The miniseries was so popular that it was blamed for the increase in divorces in Sweden after it aired.

There is some dispute over whether this was really the cause but what it did do was inspire a new genre of two-hander films about the demise of relationships, from Richard Linklater's Before trilogy and Woody Allen's films to Kramer vs. Kramer, Revolutionary Road and Blue Valentine – even When Harry Met Sally was inspired by it.

The 2021 remake of Scenes from a Marriage starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac comes after the pandemic, when lockdown forced many couples to consider their relationships. According to TimesLIVE, "psychological, social and financial problems due to Covid-19 have left many South African marriages in tatters". So, now more than ever, divorce is a topic which is prevalent and on people's minds.

So, what keeps us consuming divorce content even though we know that it can't end well? Is it the same morbid fascination that keeps us reading tabloids? What kept us tuned in on Keeping Up with the Kardashians for 20 seasons? What has us glued to the screen during every iteration of the Real Housewives franchise?

There is a type of schadenfreude about seeing couples that seem to have everything going for them struggle. If a couple that looks like Chastain and Isaac can fail, then perhaps they are human as well. Even pretty people have insecurities.

The casting of Chastain and Isaac as the leads of Scenes from a Marriage is the hook that keeps you tuning in for five episodes. Their chemistry which sizzled on the Venice Film Festival red carpet has you entranced.

Jessica Chastain And Oscar Isaac Venice Film Festival Red Carpet

By episode two you know that the couple that they are playing is heading for a divorce but there's just too much chemistry and lingering emotion for it to be anything but an exciting ride.

The series follows Mira (Chastain), the VP of a tech company, and Jonathan (Isaac), a philosophy professor. Mira is the breadwinner and travels often for work, but because Jonathan has a more relaxed schedule and is the primary caregiver for their daughter, Ava.

This explores interesting conversations such as challenges facing couples who don't subscribe to traditional gender norms. For example, even though Jonathan clearly enjoys being at home with his daughter, Mira still feels guilt over the fact that she is not always around.

The five episodes are set over about five years, as the couple battles each other, is drawn back together, and has countless conversations.

We learn about how much time has passed between episodes by the references in their conversations to what has happened in their careers, or their daughter's age. But we are led to believe that even if the series took place over a longer time period, we would still see Mira and Jonathan returning to each other, because there is more that bonds them than just the child they have in common.

But Scenes from a Marriage doesn't shy away from the toxicity and problems that both characters face and how they can bring out the worst in each other.

A recent study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggests that watching films about relationships together and then discussing it could be as effective as couples counselling at protecting your marriage.

I don't know if this method is truly effective, but the cracks depicted in Scenes from a Marriage will have you reflecting on your own relationships. So perhaps we consume content about negative subjects like divorce because it causes us to take stock of our own lives – to either admit what we are denying, or to strengthen our relationships.

  • Watch the fifth and final instalment of Scenes from a Marriage on M-Net (DStv 101) at 10:45pm on Monday 8 November. Previous episodes are available on DStv Catch Up.