You’ve probably already seen one of the many monologues from Marriage Story circulating the Internet. In it, divorce lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) is preaching the inequities women experience while parenting to Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). She seethes at the higher standards women are held to, created by our Judeo Christian “whatever” that venerates Mary, Mother of Jesus. Mary had a child, but she was a virgin! And God, the father, was never there.
Men have always sat absently in parenthood, the idea of “good” fathers only invented “like, thirty years ago.” Men operate in the world according to their own desires and own plans while their wives function as facilitators and caretakers. Marriage Story lives and traces a modern woman’s theorised liberation from this employment and a modern man’s confusion at this development.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole have decided to end their relationship—but not get a divorce. We don’t need to do this with lawyers, he posits, and she agrees. We want to stay friends. Yes. We want to live in New York. Yes.
As their separation begins and Nicole starts a new job in Los Angeles, she delights in the opportunities now afforded to her: opportunities that were suppressed, ignored, and curtailed in her marriage through both Charlie’s obtuseness and her own acquiescence.
Like so many other artists’ partners before her, Nicole was relegated to the silent muse, the secretary, the wife who would type her writer husband’s manuscripts for him, editing and improving without recognition. Charlie tells her the MacArthur grant he wins is their award, that he couldn’t have won it without her. But if her presence was so integral, her intelligence so useful, why did he never allow her to direct at the theatre company? (When she finally directs an episode of her show, she’s nominated for an Emmy. Charlie at first assumes this is for her acting: when corrected, he offers a simple, “Congratulations.”)
The announcement of the unhappiness and sacrifices Nicole endured during the years of their marriage, paired with the embarrassment and pain that accompanies divorce negotiations, hit Charlie like a freight train when he’s served divorced papers. “You were happy, you’ve just decided now that you weren’t,” he fires at Nicole, without realising her unhappiness could exist beyond his awareness; feelings are legitimate regardless of who sees. He is sad—and while it is natural to empathise when someone is sad, why should we empathise with him?
Having previously written a film about his parents’ divorce, director Noah Baumbach is now writing about his own and it is not a stretch to suggest his bias towards the subject places Charlie in the position of sympathy. Though we are told Nicole’s side of the story through her initial conversation with Nora, we live Charlie’s side of the story.
Charlie feels ambushed by Nicole’s hiring a lawyer; he meets with callous, expensive lawyers who scare him and, anyway, he can’t afford them; he learns Nicole and Henry are going to stay in Los Angeles after a disappointing Halloween. We live his nervousness, embarrassment, pain as he awkwardly pushes the evaluator’s purse handles up her shoulders, then smears his blood on the door as he hulks over her to unlock it.
We accompany Charlie to the theatre, busy at work choosing props, giving notes, making decisions while juggling calls from attorneys. The one time we see Nicole at work serves three purposes. She refuses to hold the alien baby incorrectly, because that will tell the viewers her character is a bad mother, thus proving she is a Good Mother. (It is this skill as a mother that later gets her into the director’s seat.) She meets the “flirty grip”—he becomes her first hook-up post-Charlie and another example of her newfound power. She sets the terms: I only want you to finger me, she instructs him. And she talks with one of the show’s producers, who introduces her to Nora. Both of these meetings assert her independence while also (in)directly hurting Charlie. At every stage, we are encouraged to sympathise with him.
The viewer’s empathy, while something Baumbach wants, doesn’t serve Charlie the character in his story. What he needs—despite Nicole’s admiration of his “self-sufficiency”—is a caretaker, and Nicole can’t escape that habit, that urge, that ball and chain. For all her success and gained independence, she continues to take care of her ex-husband. When he comes over during a power outage, she cuts his hair. When they fight and he says he wishes she had died, she lets him sob and hug her legs. When he can’t make up his mind ordering lunch, she orders for him, swapping the salad’s usual dressing for his preferred lemon and olive oil, and he grunts approval. She knows what he wants even when he doesn’t—a problem that, historically and ironically, she had assigned as her own.
And truly, without a female presence, what can Charlie do for himself? Donna from the theatre company makes his and Henry’s Halloween costumes. (In a refutation of that domesticity, Nicole buys the costume Henry ultimately wears). He Skypes a female coworker from the theatre company to help him redecorate his new apartment. And when Henry brings up the “knife trick” to the evaluator, perhaps due to the lack of Nicole’s stabilising eye or presence, Charlie forgets to close the blade and slices his arm open. His response is to cover it with his shirt sleeve to hide it from the evaluator. His response is to say no each of the three times she asks if he’s okay. His response is to blot with a roll of paper towels, attempt to cover with two small Band-Aids, and lay weakly on the kitchen floor. I texted my friends as I watched, ‘Is Charlie going to bleed out? Is that how this ends?’
While Nicole wins the divorce—Nora even sneaks in an extra day of custody, which Nicole neither asked for nor wanted, because “we won!”—the film ends with Nicole, after saying goodbye, running across the street from her waiting boyfriend and dinner plans to Charlie and Henry. Nicole kneels down, almost prostrated, and taps Charlie’s foot twice. Without a word, she ties his shoe for him, then jogs away as he quietly thanks her. Victory does not allow women to transcend their womanhood.
by Bianca Cockrell
Bianca Cockrell is a television producer and writer who lives in Los Angeles, the best city in the world. She spends most of her time thinking about how to live ethically under capitalism (impossible) or running after the bus. When pressed to pick a favorite movie, she always returns to The Sound of Music. Find her on Twitter @biancacockrell.
Categories: Feminist Criticism