By Anastasia Kropotina
Noah Baumbach tenth feature film and the most personal one yet, Marriage Story, gives an outlook on divorce like no other work I have seen. It’s not quite as black and white as we are used to seeing on the screens. The director’s intention is clear: to delve into the grey areas of relationships. There is no cheating spouse, no dramatic event to cause a falling out. No, this movie is a glimpse into the gradual deterioration of love. The main characters Charlie and Nicole (portrayed by Adam Driver and Scarlet Johannsen) are a married couple whose world we are submerged in. They have a child and have lived a life beyond the screen, that we don’t get to see. We do get a glimpse at the complexity of their feelings at the very beginning of the movie. The first sequence shows their everyday life as Charlie and Nicole recite the things they love about one another. The list goes from profound qualities and character traits to little everyday quirks as we get a hint of how long they have lived together. It starts off as the beginning of a love story, and it is one in a way, yet we quickly find out that this recital is a marital therapy ‘homework’, when embarrassed Nicole refuses to read her list aloud. The couple is going through a divorce and through the conversations it becomes clear that they have decided to do so amicably by forgoing lawyers. This does not last long when Nicole decides to move to Los Angeles to advance her acting career and hires a California family lawyer Laura Shaw (played by Laura Dern); a decision that inevitably leads Charlie to hire his own counsel (played by Alan Aida) and start a custody battle over the couple’s only son. Through this, both of them have to come to the slow realisation of how little they truly knew and understood each other. This movie is a journey through the metamorphosis of their relationship throughout this ordeal along with the power struggle over their child’s residence.
As much as we like to think of love as an eternal thing, something that almost has a life of its own within a person, it does not always hold up to the test of time. Not a stranger to this notion, Noah Baumbach stated that Marriage Story is by no means an account of his own divorce, but is still a very personal work. The director made that clear in a recent interview with Esquire.
“I was never even going to attempt to tell the story of my divorce, or her divorce. Certainly, my experience going through a divorce was an influence, as was my experience as a child having my parents’ divorce. I also turned to friends of mine: so many people are divorced.”
Putting the collective experience of so many people into the characters demanded a level of vulnerability from the actors we rarely get to see on screen and resulted in a mesmerizing performance by Driver and Johannsen. Their characters make the viewer feel torn, both of them villains and heroes of their own respective stories. It is not possible to make up your mind about them until you come to terms with the fact that they are just human. They don’t need to be hated or rooted for, we are there to observe their story and there is that. The emotional vulnerability of it is not the only aspect of the film that Baumbach approached differently this time. The distinct wide shots inherent of his other works are almost not present here. Instead of drowning the characters in their surroundings, the director pulls all the focus into Charlie and Nicole: the intricacies of their relationship on display not only by virtue of the plot, but in the body language and in framing of the shots. The director once stated that he drew his inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and the influence is clearly seen even in the promo shots for the movie.
Marriage Story does not have a straightforward resolution to Charlie and Nicole’s relationship problems, though the finalisation of the divorce may seem to signify it. And, frankly, it shouldn’t have one as the film is an attempt to reflect the reality of separation, and the reality is – in the simplest terms – complex. Nonetheless, it is this complexity of the subject that somewhat soured the experience for me. The dialogue felt very organic, a distinctively Baumbach aspect of the film, which, while amazing and absolutely charged in Charlie and Nicole’s interactions, did not bode well for the scenes with Laura Dern’s and Alan Alda’s characters. I often found myself just staring blankly through the screen. Maybe, the sleep deprivation was to blame (the screening was at 8 am after all) but I just could not make myself focus listening to the counsel’s legalese. Although, it does make me think if it was intended to convey the drab and draining nature of the divorce process. I felt I have gained something from Marriage Story, but I am not sure if I will be watching it again any time soon. It by no means makes you weep like a well written tearjerker would, but an uncomfortable pull in the chest does not cease throughout the better part of the movie. In the end, I deeply admire the vulnerability Noah Baumbach, Scarlett Johannsen and Adam Driver poured into this film, and will say that it is definitely worth watching but it may hit too close to home for people who have dealt with something like this before.