Recently, I was lucky enough to catch an advanced screening of Noah Baumbach’s anti-romantic dramedy “Marriage Story”, starring Adam Driver (Charlie) and Scarlet Johannson (Nicole) as divorcees navigating their separation and complications surrounding the custody of their young son. To simplify it to the extreme, it’s “Kramer vs Kramer” for the 21st Century. Baumbach was previously known for directing the film-student sensation “Frances Ha” and Palme d’Or contender “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”, as well as being a frequent writing collaborator with his close friend, Wes Anderson, on films like “Fantastic Mr Fox” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”. Most important to note, however, is that Baumbach is a child of divorce -something that seems to have heavily affected him both at the time and in his present career. In a way, his trauma is his muse, and nowhere else is that more prevalent than in “Marriage Story”, as he reflects on the fickleness and volatility of love.
How can a film be both warm yet chilling? How can two characters be loveable one moment, and truly despicable the next? The answer lies in Baumbachs deep understand of realistic characterisation. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen the opening 15 minutes of the film, which consist of Charlie and Nicole detailing all the things they love about each other. This is the films primary method of character establishment, which, while being a little on-the-nose, sets the stage for all these positive traits, the things both we and the characters love each other for, to be deconstructed and twisted. In his book “The Anatomy of Story”, John Truby writes that “a technique for creating a good moral need is to push the strength so far that it becomes a weakness”. In the opening monologues of “Marriage Story”, both Charlie and Nicole are established as incredibly competitive, a strength that leads the couple into a progressively nasty, petty divorce process, eventually giving up on trying to be equals and instead only focusing on “winning” — and they’ll do anything to win.
Whether they are aware of it or not, Charlie and Nicoles destructive acts towards each other can at times be heartbreakingly awful. We want both characters to succeed; loving them as if they were our own parents. We see them fail, succeed, break down in tears and rejoice in laughter. However, we also see their desires twist them into the villains of each other’s stories, people we don’t even recognise from the ones we thought we knew in the beginning. At every turn, I found myself thinking “How could she?!” “How could he?!” because, for a moment, I felt like they were in the right — that I could trust them. But in Baumbach’s world, there is no right without its equal and opposite wrong. In a way, the film forces us to undergo our own “divorce” with the characters, as we see their dark sides unravel and spill out in a disturbing, unsettling fashion. However, by the time the credits roll, we wish we could’ve spent more time with Charlie and Nicole, leading us to wonder if, somewhere deep down, we do still love them.
Another way of looking at the film is through the eyes of Henry, Charlie and Nicoles son; somewhere in the middle of all this, confused and concerned, trying to love both parties equally but always ending up on someones “side”. Of course, with any “versus” narrative, the audience will consciously or subconsciously take corners. What “Marriage Story” achieves well is that it is completely objective; both Charlie and Nicole are equally endearing and ignorantly malicious, and Baumbach takes careful effort to make sure no one character is more agreeable than the other. The “side” you take is entirely dependent on you, the viewer; your beliefs, your experiences, and your biases. It’s a sort of litmus test for empathy. The more conflicted you feel as you get up out of your seat, the more it’ll make you look into yourself. After seeing the film, I wondered why I felt so much more for Charlie than I did for Nicole. Was it because of my tight-knit relationship with my own father? Was it because of my career-driven values and my deep desire for creative success? Was it because he reminded me of myself in a terrible, terrible way? I hate to think about it, because the more I do, the more the film makes me feel like Henry, the inbetweener, forced to pick one side or the other and, unfortunately, knowing deep down whom I’d rather back. I think that is the perspective Baumbach wishes us to see through, as it most closely resembles the experiences he went through in his youth.
“Marriage Story” is a product of perspective. Every person will have a completely different experience and understanding of its themes, depending on both the family they come from and the relationships they’ve been in. I wish I didn’t feel as close to this story as I do, but I’m glad that, through cinema, I can self-examine and evaluate the biases my nurture has instilled me with. In that sense, “Marriage Story” is therapeutic, however stressful the subject may be, and forces its audience to meditate on their own perspectives of love.
Though the film is getting a very limited cinematic run in select theatres, its primary release will be on Netflix on the 6th of December. I highly recommend you check it out as soon as you have the time so that you can see for yourself the side you take and the perspective you bring to the film.