Marriage Story (2019)
Written & Directed by Noah Baumbach
I have never been divorced and have no plans to ever be. Noah Baumbach explores the time that makes up the dissolution of a relationship in his latest film, Marriage Story, and it feels real and painful. As Adam Driver’s Charlie says at one point, “It feels like I’m in a dream.” Even if we haven’t been divorced, we can relate to those moments in life that are so massive and painful that your brain goes hazy and disconnects from reality, simply to save your sanity. Yes, this is a film that features a couple getting divorced, yet it is so brimming over with love and sentiment.
Charlie and Nicole are introduced to the audience at the moment it becomes clear their mediator is in over his head. The couple has written short essays about each other’s best qualities, but Nicole has decided she doesn’t want to read it. We, however, got to hear them read it out in voice-over while a montage of their happy moments plays on the screen. By presenting these people at their bests in the words of the other person, Baumbach is making it clear that we won’t be watching a film about good guys & bad guys. The tones and moods of the film shift throughout, and we are going to see these people at their best and worst. By the end of the picture, you will love Charlie and Nicole but also understand that this just won’t work anymore.
I cannot emphasize how damn good Scarlett Johanssen and Adam Driver are in this film. Their performances are so genuine and honest at every turn. Johanssen hasn’t been this good in years, mainly because she’s been doing so much big-budget special effect heavy work rather than character-centered pieces. Baumbach allows long takes where the actors just talk and go through the natural emotions you would feel when the dam finally breaks, and you let everything out. Johanssen has a moment in her lawyer’s office, where she goes over the story of how she met Charlie and eventually fell out of love with him. It’s shot very simply, which allows the actress to be the center of the scene. She laughs over memories, finds herself choking up as these happy thoughts bring her to the realization that she isn’t going to have that anymore.
There is no surprise ending or twists, the narrative unfolds in a very organic way. Charlie and Nicole believe this can be a clean split, she is advised to get a lawyer, and things get more complicated from there. We can see in Nicole’s eyes, her reticence when her legal counsel suggests she be aggressive and try to take more than Charlie, and she agreed upon. But we learn to understand that Nicole’s goals and dreams have been pushed to the back burner for over a decade, and she wants to live her own life, not Charlie’s.
That doesn’t mean Charlie is a monster, he is a very dedicated artist, a stage director who featured Nicole in so many of his shows. He gets lost in the work though and stops seeing Nicole as a person and more as a component of his work. We recognize that Nicole didn’t fight hard enough until now for what she wanted and that this has made Charlie reasonably frustrated. He argues he didn’t understand how seriously she wanted these things because they seemed like non-serious musings. Neither person is wrong, but they allowed communication to breakdown for so long it’s just beyond repair. Life will enter into a new phase wherein they are co-parents, maybe friends, but that’s all they will be.
Life goes on even in the aftermath of horribly sad events. Charlie feels like he’s losing his grip, but he will be okay. Nicole is frightened about a future that’s unsure but faces it with a hopeful determination. They end up regretting some of the more aggressive decisions they made during the divorce proceedings, but they have to live with them. Their love becomes something different, not as intense or as intimate, more distant but still there, rebuilding itself into a new thing. They find a way to exist not just in the context of legal agreements and parenting documents but as people, finally learning how to respect each other.