Marriage Story (2019): Accepting Love In Separation In Noah Baumbach’s Nuanced Take On Loss
Marriage Story (2019) – Accepting Love In Separation: In 2005, Noah Baumbach made a film that was essentially about the divorce of his parents- The Squid and the Whale. That film was a child’s-eye view of a family falling apart. Baumbach, known for his almost autobiographical approach, 15 years later told the story about two brilliantly talented people caught in the tangle of their own lives through Marriage Story. His movies always tend to start with a hint of where they’re gonna go. This one starts by putting in front of us the affirmations of love, as the two lead characters get into describing each other’s quirks, as heartwarming past memories of them with their son play in front of us. “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things,” says Charlie as he hashes out everything he love about Nicole. “She listens, she chooses great presents, she’s brave, she’s a mother who plays – really plays.” Later, it’s revealed that they wrote those things down for a mediator. The ice breaks.
Shot on film, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s claustrophobic yet at the same time beautiful Bergman-esque framing reinforces the already brilliant and nuanced writing by Baumbach. Everything that we need to know is skillfully layed in front of us. The point of contention in both the film as well as in their divorce becomes that Nicole wants to move to Los Angeles while Charlie insists on continuing to live in New York. The geographical representation suggests a drift between the couple, that will never be filled again.
Nicole is someone who listens too long to strangers, loves playing with her son Henry while also caring a great deal for her mother and sister. After the film’s first act that consisted beautifully rendered montages followed by a reveal which set the tone for everything that would follow, Nicole goes to see a high-powered attorney Nora (Laura Dern). Within the first 20 minutes of the film, I realized that I was watching a masterclass in acting unfold.
Scarlett Johansson embraces and inhabits her character’s blemishes and foibles throughout Marriage Story. But it’s this scene in particular, where her overall act transcends. While opening up about her marriage, Nicole shares how she’s always felt castrated in her marriage, by merely being an extension of Charlie at various crucial stages. They both are still passionate about each other, yes. But there’s also a resentment that’s gradually building up. But how do you show such resentment which is a part of a subtext, without exposition?
The way Johansson rubs her hands together while sitting on the couch, restlessly grabbing the cookie as she chugs onto it, trying to articulate her complex marriage into words, speaks volumes. Her voice cracks down while trying to emphasize on certain words, and there’s echoes of what we had felt in Her (2013). The camera doesn’t cut away from her face; it gradually pushes in. Baumbach trusts the actress of Johansson’s caliber with a long take like that, even while realizing that Nicole’s emotional journey precedes the movie in a more important way than anyone else’s. Same can be said regarding Adam Driver’s extraordinary performance here, capable of crackling his voice and echoing years of frustration and angst through his stoic face and deep eyes.
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Baumbach’s earlier films formed the foundational text for Marriage Story, explaining why many would consider this as the director’s best work. But you also cannot separate both Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson’s performance from this film. They always seem as if they’re just on the edge of bursting into tears. Johansson especially compliments Baumbach’s writing in the best possible way. Her performance lets the nuances and the subtext work to its maximum. “I forgot it ended that way” she says while Charlie reads out a bittersweet story with Henry laying in the middle of the bed, trapped between his parents’ falling marriage. In another subtle moment, Nicole glances over her lawyer’s file of their divorce papers; there’s a number written on top of it, showcasing how for the attorneys it’s just another case that’s perfectly ordinary. But in real, the situation couldn’t be more catastrophic as it’s going to drastically alter two people’s entire lives. This comes right before ‘the’ confrontation of the movie in the court.
Every little personal detail is turned against each of them, dehumanizing both their individuality and their marriage’s potential by making them forget the basic sympathy they once had for each other. What follows, is undoubtedly one of the most cataclysmic showdowns in film history. The emotional turmoil that’s weighing Nicole down, transforms into Johansson’s body language and expressions. When she yells out in sorrow, “I wanted to be married” at Charlie while standing in his new empty living room in the middle of the fight, I couldn’t hold back my tears. But it was only until the scene ended that I realized that I hadn’t taken a proper breath in a while. She still calls Charlie “honey.” Their notions and distinctions of what they think of love are born out into that vial confrontation. All the thin lines are blurred; more importantly the one between the abstract, more conflated perception and idea of love. There’s an undertone of irony in Nicole’s voice, and a look of disbelief on her face after the fight ends as she comforts Charlie while he sits down on the floor, sobbing. Their dynamic is shattered beyond repair, if only for their selfish desires as individuals. They both know nothing’s going to remain the same from that point on.
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I’ve always found myself turning towards resonating art, somewhat masochistically, whenever going through heavy emotional turmoil. That’s the only form of catharsis I could tether onto at times, which comforts me. It’s always fascinated me how certain pieces of art can reach someone at specific times so significantly, merely by threads of fate and yet create such an impact. I had watched Marriage Story for the first time when it had come out while I was going through my worst breakup.
Naturally, it had left me emotionally devastated. But it also made me feel hopeful about the possibility of love and companionship. Maybe love is about you coming out of an experience to be more positively transformed? Baumbach wants us to acknowledge that there’s no good outcome in a divorce, only what we make out of it. And watching Marriage Story taught me that love can be found even in separation. When the letter Nicole had written for Charlie as a part of the mediator’s session from the beginning of the film resurfaces in the last act, it gives a closure not only to both of them, but also to us the viewer. When Charlie stood up to sing along ‘Being Alive’, it felt like that was the cathartic howl of the film. And re-watching the two actors’ performance around Valentines day throughout Marriage Story, I found my catharsis.