Film as an entertainment medium has conceptually always been intended as a means of escapism from the crushing pressures of our mundane everyday lives, to be whisked away from our very real struggles and indulge in a fictional reality that is separate from our own for a few short hours. It is also the responsibility of a storyteller to connect to their audience by crafting stories and characters that speak to those same personal hardships and provide a cathartic outlet for exploring these internal conflicts, both for the individual audience member, as well as the filmmaker themselves in certain cases.
For writer/director Noah Baumbach, the subject of his parents’ divorce when he was a child is an experience that has left a profound impact on his upbringing, of which he has previously explored in his 2005 coming-of-age film The Squid and the Whale. Whereas that film was more centered around the perspectives and experiences of the children as this procedure was unfolding around them, his newest film Marriage Storyis more of a look at the deeper and more complex intricacies of a crumbling marriage, informed not only by the experiences of his own parents’ divorce, but most likely his own experiences of separation from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Aside from just the interpersonal turmoil that such an experience can cause, it also tackles all the grueling, gory details of the judicial process that serves to further complicate matters.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole, a married couple on the path of divorce, as they hash out all the messy legal disputes of finding lawyers, framing narratives, battling for custody of their child, all of which serve to further aggravate tensions in ways that feel almost customary throughout the procedure, no matter how level-headed you try to go about it.
While Baumbach certainly has a biased perspective on this matter, his approach as both a writer and director gives as perfect of an equal balance between the two different characters as one could reasonably expect to deliver. The opening of the film introduces us to Charlie and Nicole from each other’s points of view as their narration tells us what they love about the other, setting up what it is that they see in each other just to watch it all crumble away.
What starts out for both parties involved as a mutual understanding that splitting up is the most reasonable and logical step for their marriage, hopefully ending on the best of terms with little to no animosity towards each other, then spirals out of control once lawyers and judicial debates are introduced. As one of the lawyers says to Charlie, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”
The dirty tactics and practices that both characters are forced to resort to throughout the proceedings highlight the cutthroat nature of the legal system that brings out a certain ugliness in people that wasn’t there before. Despite the relatively civil discourse that had been proceeding throughout the majority of this ordeal, there comes a breaking point which erupts into a vicious argument during the final act in which characters say and do things in such a fit of rage and passion that shows us a different side of these people that we didn’t even know existed. The hopeful, optimistic, free-spirited souls that we had first been introduced to are completely absent, and we find ourselves looking at people that we don’t even know anymore, much like how Charlie and Nicole feel about the person that they once were in love with, now having turned into someone that they can’t even stand to look at. The visceral intensity of such personal human emotion on display here feels almost like a breach of privacy on the part of the viewer for passively bearing witness to the uttermost intimate and volatile turning points of two people’s relationship, a moment meant only for those two people and no one else.
The attention paid to this level of potently intimate human emotion is not only a credit to the sensitivity that Baumbach wields through his writing and direction, but to the actors who are able to turn these emotionally complex characters into real human beings. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have such palpable chemistry together which makes you feel believe why these two people fell in love in the first place and why they ultimately grew apart and became resentful of one another. Baumbach also allows for several character interactions and monologues to play out in a single take to really give the film and his actors’ performances the feeling of a dramatic stage play, which in turn allows for his actors to fully inhabit their characters’ lives and explore a vast spectrum of dynamic emotional shifts.
The ability for an artist to willingly dig that deeply into the core of their emotional baggage and display it all in painstakingly real detail for the world to see is a level of self-reflection that deserves the highest levels of respect and reverence. Marriage Story is a profound look into the lives of not just these characters, not just the filmmaker behind the camera, but also into the lives of millions of families that have been torn apart by this exact same fate. It pays sympathy and legitimacy to both partners involved and refrains from villainizing either party. Through Baumbach’s delicate approach, he provides a method for the viewers to live through this painfully defeating reality of these characters’ individual experiences, while also offering a level of wisdom and maturity through the lens of retrospect. Both a comforting and affirming perspective to anyone who has gone through or is currently going through a similar situation, it is at times the callous death of a marriage that gives way to new forms of love from its ashes.
Heartbreaking and personal, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story strikes an emotional chord in one of the year's best films
Beautiful exploration of emotional themes and subject matter