Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) run a theatre company together in New York. Charlie directs, Nicole acts, they’re married, and they have a son. All has been well for years, but somehow it isn’t enough for Nicole. From there we witness the spectacular denouement as their marriage crumbles and the family is slowly, agonisingly pulled apart.
There’s a lot to unpack with Marriage Story. I was afraid my earlier assessments of the film were too shallow or simplistic, but it was much better than expected. I’ve read a lot online that says that the film ‘lives up to the hype’, and have seen the film described as ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘devastating’. I’m not sure I’d hyperbolise to that degree, but if I may take a step back I’d like to examine why everyone has been giving it so much praise.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Release date: August 29, 2019 (Venice); October 6, 2019 (LFF)
Nicole starred in a high-school comedy called All Over The Girl as a teenager, and from there had a shot at becoming a high-profile actress. She met rising star and arthouse director Charlie when filming in New York, and broke off a previous engagement to marry him instead. Now, with a husband wrapped up in his work and unable to fulfil her dream of directing and being her own person, she takes steps back towards her LA home.
Because the themes are inherently tied up in the theatre world, it stands that Baumbach can play with the conventions on film. A close-knit theatre company act as an extended family to the couple, and news of their separation spreads through experimental rehearsals like wildfire. It has a distinctly lively flavour compare to other divorce dramas in vogue at the moment.
I enjoyed seeing the way Nicole was first shot on camera. Against a black backdrop, we see her facing just offscreen, like a headshot. It’s an economical way of telling us all that we need to know about the film: Nicole is wrapped in layers of performance, Charlie is obsessed with order and perfection, and their connection is about more than appearances. It’s about power, ownership, autonomy, and hearing one’s voice. The film’s central preoccupation is with the narratives we tell ourselves.
The first gut-punch of the film arrives early. The voiceover in which the two talk about each other and the things they love about each other, seen in the trailer, rolls over a playful montage. Cut to the next scene, and the voiceovers are actually lists they’re written down for marriage counselling. The damage is already done.
This is both Nicole’s and Charlie’s story in equal part. They occupy the same space, the same frames, and even split-framing is used to show the parallels. Johansson’s and Driver’s performances are quietly powerful, and especially important outside of their usual wheelhouses. The nuances is what makes their characters so convincing.
As the pair begin to address the cracks in their relationship, the divorce becomes more painful and their family life becomes more deeply embroiled in the conflict. There are rare moments of extreme tension: for the most part, we see slight digs at one another, slight losses of patience, slightly more physical distance between the pair, all of which contribute to the decline.
What’s hardest about the film is that the couple are still in love throughout the process of their divorce, but that other people are always putting words into their mouth and steering them in the direction of a more lucrative, or a more manipulative, deal. It’s hardest on their son Henry (Azhy Robertson), who is ferried back and forth between parents and lawyers (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta excellently representing stereotypical West Coasters). It feels disruptive and futile.
The best way I can think to describe the film is like a romcom in reverse. In small sequences such as Nicole leaving a subway, there’s a tangible echo of a whole roster of films from When Harry Met Sally to Sleepless in Seattle — somehow it’s captured the verisimilitude of a Nora Ephron screenplay set in New York in the 1980s and 90s and placed today’s stars at the centre. Driver is our new Tom Hanks and Johansson, Meg Ryan.
The distinguishing feature of Marriage Story was that it was shot on 35mm film with a 1.66 aspect ratio. This wide angle does an impressive job of opening up the film and allowing it to breathe, to become much more immersive and expansive. It becomes a running joke in the film when characters comment on ‘the space!’ in LA, and this is aided in no small part by the cinematography. It’s intended to give a glow of freedom to the West Coast, by contrast representing New York as stifling.
But make no mistake: while it’s sad, it’s clever and funny. Laura Dern gives an impassioned speech about the double standards between men and women and how women are held to account at extremes. Emotional encounters between characters are weaponised and manifest themselves as ammunition when you’d least expect it. Driver reveals his wonderful singing voice.
The film echoes the sentiment of Kramer vs. Kramer and Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. While dysfunctional families are something of a speciality for the director, he brings something new to Marriage Story. There’s a hint of Jarmusch’s Paterson, not just in Driver’s performance but in the slow-burning candour of the piece. After all, it clocks in at 2 hour 16 minutes: a long time to process a hard, somehow funny, bittersweet separation.
To criticise, I felt that deliberate slapstick sequences were funny, but a little out of place. Other characters didn’t have as much input as might have been expected. Charlie’s world in particular was so self-contained that it was hard to see into it. But on the whole the elements worked together.
The score, for instance, was one of the most moving parts of the show. Randy Newman is known for his long collaboration with Pixar, so it stands that his score echoed the bright melancholy of Toy Story or Monsters Inc. In a vast score punctuated with sailing piccolo melodies, we experience all of the bittersweet pain of loss and the hope of a new chapter. There’s something about the associations with his work that immediately bring to mind the sting of a sweet, idyllic time that’s lost and can’t be recovered.
Marriage Story is laden in irony. These two individuals who have shared so much of their life try to undo something that can’t be undone so easily. It’s not as simple as wrapping up Marriage Story in a neat bundle of prose. It’s a layered film that will no doubt become richer on subsequent viewings, solidifying its potential to be remembered as a classic romcom, only which unfolds in the wrong direction.
Marriage Story will stream on Netflix from November 6, 2019.