A relationship falling apart is intensely personal. All of your failures slip to the surface and it feels entirely insular. No matter how well you recognize this process as innately human and universal, The End is happening to you and your partner. No one else.
Marriage Story launched at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and debuts on Netflix December 6. It pulls apart the private dissolution of a marriage and puts it on display. It’s a film that, at times, quietly shows us how entwined our mistakes are with underlying love we have for someone that’s leaving.
And although Marriage Story follows the structural process of a marriage breaking down – warily showing us how cold and precise the legal system can be – the film is searching for the intimate moments; love, affection, honesty and truth will always be present by virtue of what once was but can no longer exist in its current state.
“Sometimes, it’s only when something breaks down that you understand it for the first time. And so it was through the narrative structure of a divorce that I was able to tell the story of a marriage,” Baumbach said during a Q&A after a recent screening of the film. “The legal system of divorce is set up to divide, necessarily. It divides people, family, property and time. It keeps everyone in their own story and obfuscates the other person’s point of view. But I wanted to construct another way of looking at it, a more generous offering. I wanted to find the love story in the breakdown.”
A Family Apart
Marriage Story tracks the divorce of Charlie and Nicole, while they naively try to make a messy, painful process simple for their son Henry. Portrayed by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson respectively, the two lead performances are uncomfortably relatable – their fights and issues with the other are so specific and deep they come out the side wholly universal.
Both Charlie and Nicole are creatives. He’s a rising theatre director and she’s a theatre actor, once his muse that now feels taken for granted; living a vision of his New York City, his professional and personal life while she merely exists to support him.
And while the film starts from Nicole’s perspective, Marriage story is ultimately divided in two, shifting to Charlie’s perspective halfway through the film. The supporting cast is outstanding, with Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, and even Wallace Shawn all propping up two of the strongest lead performances I’ve seen this decade.
There’s a scene where Johansson’s Nicole finally explains why she wants a divorce. What starts out as a conversation between Dern’s Nora Fanshaw as she attempts to convince Nicole why she should represent her in the divorce, turns into a 10-minute monologue complete with a subtle tracking shot. Johansson moves around the room, and emotionally begins to disintegrate and she realizes herself just how unhappy she’s been and how difficult this decision is. It’s heartbreaking and some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from Johansson.
“Scarlett was amazing. It was like watching a great athlete compete. Since there was no stopping, I’d give her notes for the thing as a whole. A note could be for three-and-a-half minutes into it, and she could make that adjustment. It was so fine-tuned,” Baumbach said.
Eventually, the film switches to Charlie and we see the devastation of this process from his point of view. And while Johansson is outstanding, Driver is on another level entirely; the confusion, anger, resentment and eventual painful realization that he’s truly failed for the first time in his life, is all streaked across his face.
We watch as Charlie flies between New York, where he’s trying to put on his latest play, and Los Angeles to figure out this divorce and see his son Henry. There’s the “Big Argument” scene between Johansson and Driver in his depressing L.A apartment that is so acerbic and heartbreaking that I almost had to leave the theatre – and the way Driver chooses to lash out and ultimately breakdown once he realizes what he’s saying to the woman he’s loved for a decade-plus, it’s the most painfully cathartic piece of acting I’ve seen all year.
“He’s the best collaborator you could hope for; there’s always something in him pushing. He might alter the rhythm of a line or change his physicality, all in search for a truer moment. And once he’s arrived there, he can live in that space for a while, take further direction, refine it. It’s conscious and unconscious simultaneously. It’s my favourite way to work.”
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A Personal Production
For Baumbach, this film is as personal as it gets, as he went through a divorce prior to making Marriage Story, and it’s evident throughout that this is as much him grappling with the issues on screen as it is the character’s he’s created. In fact, when he approached Johanssen about the role, she was in the midst of her own divorce – ultimately bringing the pain of that experience to the character of Nicole.
“I came at it from a personal place, for sure, as I’m the child of divorce and I’ve been through a divorce as an adult. But divorce is something so many families go through, and I thought it would be an important and interesting topic to explore in an expansive way,” Baumbach said.
The structure of the film begins somewhat from afar. We are given the broad strokes of Nicole and Charlie’s life, but through both the camera work and the script, the film slowly builds momentum, until it finally explodes during that scene I mentioned above. And at that point in the film, we are uncomfortably close to the two of them, and after that scene, Marriage Story begins to pull back again, giving us room to breathe as Charlie and Nicole do the same for the other.
It’s also a deeply funny film, one scene, in particular, involving Nicole’s mother played by the great Julie Hagerty and Nicole’s sister Cassie played by the hilarious Merritt Wever. The trio is discussing how to serve Charlie the divorce papers when he comes to visit Henry in L.A, they rehearse and plan it out before everything falls apart in a scene that is both deeply sad but tinged with humour that only hindsight and personal experience can provide.
“I approached those scenes almost like we were shooting a screwball comedy. Robbie and I looked at Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) and Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934), both of which portray actors and couples. I love scenes with complicated choreography, overlapping dialogue. I got into a screwball vibe a bit in the second half of Mistress America (2015) and I wondered, Could this be integrated into a movie that’s essentially realistic?” Baumbach said.
Marriage Story is a film I have a hard time recommending, not because it’s bad – it’s brilliant. But because it’s a film that forces you to reconcile with your own shortcomings, your own failures while having the potential to recontextualize a close relationship.
So should you see Marriage story with your significant other? Yes of course. Just acknowledge the fact that a deep conversation is sure to follow. And in this way, Marriage Story accomplishes what most films aspire but so often fail at doing: generating conversation about the mundane, day-to-day existence of like. By presenting us with questions we’ve all ruminated on but choose to push aside, it’s a painful film about the hope needed to push through such a tragically mundane event.
Marriage Story, debuting on Netflix December 6, pulls apart the private dissolution of a marriage and puts it on display. It’s a film that, at times, quietly shows us how entwined our mistakes are with underlying love we have for someone that’s leaving.
Date Created: December 6, 2019
Runtime: 136 min
- Noah Baumbach,
- David Heyman,
- Noah Baumbach
- Noah Baumbach,
- Scarlett Johansson,
- Adam Driver,
- Alan Alda,
- Laura Dern,
- Ray Liotta,