By Poulomi Das Dec. 08, 2019
There is no battle in the stinging, visceral Marriage Story, a drama centred around divorce, the ultimate war against domestic decency. That’s because it doesn’t take sides, but offers a perspective, arguing that sometimes there’s no other way to love someone than to stop being in love with them.
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story opens with a story about time. In a pair of illustrated voiceover monologues, Charlie and Nicole Barber detail the small intimacies of their married life. At first, it seems as if it’s a display of unconditional affection; an articulation of the very reasons two people need each other. Charlie speaks glowingly about Nicole’s kindness, her unparalleled gifting sensibilities, the very many ways she accommodates his whims and pushes him when he gets set in his ways. Nicole gushes about Charlie’s devotion as a parent, his self-sufficiency, and how he makes a family out of anyone around him. He states that she is his favourite actress and she admires how self-made his directorial genius is.
Yet, this is only a ruse: These feelings are past their expiry date. In the present, Charlie and Nicole are in the throes of a separation. They’re in a session with their separation mediator who suggests they list down traits they loved about each other, if only as a reminder of the joys that they might still locate in their frayed bond. The last step of this hopeful exercise involves the couple reading their tender paeans aloud to each other. But as we soon find out, nothing of that sort happens: Nicole refuses to read her confessional or listen to Charlie’s letter. The words that we hear play out only as internal monologues in their respective heads. These words are then, not their love. Instead, they are proof of the demise of their love. These are stories from a time when their marriage – their relationship – was in bloom.
When Marriage Story begins, Nicole and Charlie’s marriage has become an epilogue of neglected domesticity. She is invisible to Charlie and he is an annoyance to her. Years ago, Nicole, a Los Angeles-bred girl left behind the temptations of a movie-star career in Hollywood to start over with Charlie in New York, acting in the plays of his avant-garde theatre troupe. But serving as a loyal witness to his genius came with the risk of forgetting her own worth. “I didn’t even come alive for myself. I was just feeding his aliveness,” Nicole tearfully admits to her divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern emitting Big Little Lies energy) on their first meeting. It’s a spectacularly executed monologue that becomes breathtaking in how it takes its time to caress the jagged shards of Nicole’s resentment. The implication is clear: With the passage of time, marriage to Charlie started resembling an act of self-sabotage, that demanded obedience out of Nicole instead of offering companionship. The divorce is her way out.
The fragility of time remains a central motif in Marriage Story as Baumbach chronicles with heartbreaking intimacy, the spoils of estrangement. Often, it feels like is a time-lapse inside a movie, a stinging examination of the parts of themselves people tend to abandon trying to fit into the lives of other people. Often, it is also a tense exploration of the cruelty we’re equipped to inflict on the people we love and the varying shades that this baggage accrues over time.
Marriage Story achieves a large part of this emotional transparency through the breathlessly calibrated performances of its two leads.
The significance of timing in Marriage Story is so omnipresent that it almost feels like a protagonist of its own. For one, Baumbach spreads the film across the past and the present, separating with a devastating clarity the difference between a marriage built on a performance and a relationship that is born out of uncomfortable realities. Then there’s the fact that a chunk of the revelations and realisations between the two ex-spouses of Marriage Story happen in hindsight, which itself represents the ultimate paradox of time. To that end, Marriage Story is a film about divorce, but it is foremost a story about the culmination of time: how the ticking of the clock can simultaneously rupture and tether bonds; how time can wash up regrets but also offer a way out of them. Perhaps, that explains the impossibly romantic undertone of Marriage Story. Baumbach sees a love-story in divorce. The story here is as much about the disintegration of a marriage as it is about the coming-of-age of a relationship.
Marriage Story takes off when Nicole and Charlie break off their artistic umbilical cord. She decamps to Los Angeles with Henry, their eight-year-old-son, to star in a television pilot, but mostly to build a life for herself that isn’t centred around her husband. And in the coming days, he takes their play to Broadway without her. The persnickety Charlie proves Nicole’s complaints about his selfishness when he fails to recognise the enormity of Nicole’s move, deeming it as a temporary arrangement. Baumbach seems reluctant to completely pin this down to Charlie’s indifference in the marriage by introducing a sub-plot of gradual romantic dilapidation.
But Marriage Story does poke at Charlie’s emotional distance. It’s only when Nicole makes her dissatisfaction infuriatingly obvious by serving him divorce papers (a wonderfully comic sequence built on embarrassing nicknames, Merritt Wever’s delicious timing, and Driver’s sudden transformation into the Adam of Girls) that the speed with which their marriage has unravelled hits him for the first time. But even then, Charlie feels more betrayed than hurt, simply because of what the papers suggest: That Nicole decided on something (in this case, using lawyers) on her own instead of going along with him.
The duration of the cross-continent divorce proceedings, expensive and invasive in equal measure, account for moments in Marriage Story that resonate the most. There’s a particularly clever irony in enlisting the services of the legal system, whose success depends on blatant miscommunication, to help two sparring spouses communicate their needs to each other, that Baumbach uses to his advantage. Although, Marriage Story doesn’t explicitly take sides, it does seem more reasonable to Nicole’s sadness and in limiting it. Divorcing in Los Angeles guarantees that Charlie is stripped off any control, forced instead to uproot his New York life. It is in these phases that he stops being a stereotype of the absent husband and becomes full-bodied, allowed to channelise the agonising loneliness that arises out of his inattention. Yet the hard truths, like how Charlie doesn’t fight for their marriage in the same way that Nicole insists on their separation or the couple being reduced to weaponising the other’s missteps in court, are intercut with surprising intimacies. There’s Nicole addressing Charlie with “honey” in between launching a volley of invective during a suffocating showdown and Charlie breaking down after revealing an ugliness that he can’t erase from Nicole’s memory, that goes to the heart of the film’s gentleness.
In that sense, the true rewards of Marriage Story remain in Baumbach’s directorial nimbleness, that is at once direct and biting. The director’s eye for specificity, detail and his skill at helming an ensemble is on full display here. It’s near impossible to not be taken by how easily Baumbach spends two sharp, witty hours (a Tom Petty divorce anecdote had my heart) into creating sparkling action out of unadorned dialogue. There are wordless scenes that are imbued with meaning which endlessly steep into your consciousness, such as the imagery of the couple willingly letting a sliding door come in between them. Or the metaphor of Charlie refusing to acknowledge the visible injury on his hand if only to prove his familial commitment. The distance between Nicole and Charlie, both literal and metaphorical, is emphasised by the unsparing framing: the close-ups for instance, act as effective stand-ins for the claustrophobia of their marriage. It’s topped off with a tremendously moving climactic sequence that hinges on two reveals, circling back to the faults in Nicole and Charlie’s timing.
If Marriage Story succeeds in achieving a rare emotional transparency, it is in large part due to the breathlessly calibrated performances of its two leads. For two hours, Johansson and Driver marinate in the despair of inadequacy, delivering standout performances that replicate the depths of romantic unhingedness. As Nicole, Johansson makes a sensational moment out of every exchange, as she jumps through the hoops of guilt and devotion to ask for more, aided and abetted by a face that looks perpetually in mourning even during escape. In fact, the extent of Marriage Story’s honesty seems almost unimaginable without Driver offering himself up as a blank canvas. He exploits his imposing physicality – his eyes are sunken, his face is deadpan, and his shoulders are droopier in the second half – as Charlie begins confronting his inertia.
If Marriage Story starts with the thud of an ending, then it ends with the embrace of a beginning (reminiscent of the closing sequence of Blue Valentine). Baumbach turns the traits that Nicole and Charlie once loved about each other on its head, signposting in a way, the cycle of revival. Ultimately, Marriage Story closes with another story about time, arguing that sometimes there is no way to love someone than to stop being in love with them. Nicole and Charlie’s marriage might have been a mystery to them, but it is in divorce that they stop being a mystery to each other.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.