Marriage Story opens by detailing its protagonists — Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) share the most intimate of things they’ve picked up about each other over the course of their marriage. Charlie always dresses nicely. Nicole can kill a tough jar lid. They’re both competitive. Nicole listens to people so they never feel embarrassed. Charlie moved from Indiana to New York with no safety net, and now he’s more New Yorker than anyone. Noah Baumbach’s opening montages feel like love letters — and that’s what they are.
But they aren’t. They’re lists of all the things they love about one another, but for the purpose of divorce mediation. These lists that Charlie and Nicole have composed, these series of immediate characterisations are all a passionate build-up to irritation. The little details spiral into agitation. Charlie’s too much of a New Yorker. Nicole is far-too influenced by her surroundings. They’re both competitive. Just as fast as they fall for each others’ quirks, they grow to hate them. Under the guise of divorce, loving acceptance soon becomes combative warfare.
Just like the montaged lists he presents at the beginning, Baumbach continuously shows his excellence in detail-work throughout the rest of Marriage Story. It’s painful, because watching every detail of divorce sprawl into a full whiplash isn’t exactly a romantic comedy, but the film still qualifies under both genres. It’s humour and romance that still exist under the shroud of lawyers, tears, and tricky child hand-offs are what makes Marriage Story all the more painful. In one scene, Nicole beckons Charlie cross-town to help her with an electrical issue — it’s hard to go cold turkey on married life. He obliges, enlisting the help of their young son Henry. But Henry’s tired. After fixing the issue, Nicole heaps his heavy, sleeping body over her shoulder. Out of pure love, she offers to keep him for the night. Charlie shakes his head: “My night.”
This familial warmth is interwoven with a symphonious score from Randy Newman (Toy Story) and bright visuals from cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey, The Favourite), but the film also ties in quick drops to darker tones. When we’re introduced to Laura Dern’s character, best-in-her-field lawyer Nora Fanshaw, we get a new side of Nicole — one that’s more open to understanding the built-up hostilities against Charlie. Nora is hip, sleek, and not only is she a good listener, she’s also fantastic at prodding people in just the right places. She’s the cool lawyer. Hidden under friendly chats and cookies, Nicole doesn’t realise she’s throwing fuel into the fire until she’s served several balls to Charlie’s court.
Everything should be about their son Henry. It’s painful to watch them blow everything out of proportion in a battle to keep his best interests in mind, when really, his best interests probably involve as little fighting as possible. As we watch Henry request things that many children do — a different Halloween costume, for his father to play with him, to have a full night’s sleep — we can understand the full extent and difficulties of these requests. Neither of them can tell Henry that they’re only trying their best — this would just make it seem like they weren’t. Charlie and Nicole, who are trying to work with lawyers, their son, and each other, can’t help their rising fury.
“I can’t believe I have to know you forever,” Nicole yells amidst one of their larger fights. Charlie retaliates with the harsh reality of his thoughts — he wishes she would just die. He confesses to hoping that she was hit by a car, plagued with an illness, wiped out by any force so that neither of them would have to deal with the whole thing anymore. Uncovered here is the reality of divorce: all of the painful organisation and loveless trauma is so permanent, it’s hard to picture an easy way out. Death seems easier than scraping the grime of love from every corner of your home. There’s no joint parenting. No awkward friendships. No lawyers. With divorce, there’s always that leftover residue of the happiness that once was, and the road of raising a child amidst these feelings that lie ahead. “Til death do us part” is probably the most marriage-related line in the book, and it’s the source of anxiety that Marriage Story unpacks. Marriage is permanent. Love isn’t.
Marriage Story screened at NYFF on October 4th
by Fletcher Peters
Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, and Instagram.