Marriage Story is Baumbach’s perfect film about divorce.
Noah Baumbach’s latest feature starts with a romantic montage sequence where we hear the two protagonists, theatre-director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his company’s leading actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), say what they love about each other via voiceover. Nicole is “a great dancer” and “a mother who really plays”, while Charlie “loves being a dad”, “is very clear about what he wants” and “cries easily in movies”.
When the sequence ends abruptly we see that Charlie and Nicole were asked by a mediator to write about each other in order to initiate their separation in the best way possible. What we thought would be a love story quickly turns into the tale of a painfully devastating divorce. Tired of living in the shadow of her husband’s creative genius, Nicole takes their eight-year-old son Henry to Los Angeles to shoot a TV pilot episode while Charlie remains in New York for the theatre company. Nicole hires high-profile divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw –brilliantly played by the wonderful Laura Dern– and gives Charlie the divorce papers. At this point, the story shifts from Nicole’s to Charlie’s point of view and deals with how the endless steps of the divorce process affect the two characters.
While a few other American films have dealt with the subject of divorce and its legal challenges (especially Kramer vs. Kramer for its realistic look into the drama of custody battles), Marriage Story feels fresh for its layered rending of a seemingly simple divorce. The film is empathetic, sad but never too hopeless. At times, thanks to Baumbach’s talent for comedy, it can also be exhilarating, such as when Nicole, her mother (Julie Hagerty) and her sister (Merritt Wever) rehearse before giving Charlie the divorce papers or when Charlie accidentally slices his arm with a switchblade in front of child protective services. Laura Dern’s monologue on why women always need to be perfect just like Jesus’s mother –“a virgin who got pregnant”– while men can be absent with their children and still get away with it is another highlight of the story. Yet, the most intense and emotional scene is the long-awaited fight between the two protagonists, who decide to have an honest face off when their respective attorneys become more and more aggressive. As their emotions are increasingly laid bare, we observe love quickly turning into hate, and how heartbreaking that can be. While the two discuss his infidelity and narcissism, and her insecurities and self-pity, Driver and Johansson give two performances that might be the best of their careers.
Charlie is here forced to accept the damaging effect he had on the woman he loves, a reality that he wasn’t able to deal with in the first part of the film, while Nicole expresses the clashing emotions of a woman who strives to find her voice but also suffers as she sees the pain she is bringing into her ex-husband’s life. Driver perfectly encapsulates the subtle mix of egoism and affection that characterises Charlie, while Johansson’s performance is layered, giving us a character that is both fragile and bold as she transitions into a new chapter of her life.
Based on the real story of his own divorce, Baumbach has created two complex characters without pushing us to empathise more with one or the other: by the end, we root for both Charlie and Nicole. Together with the brilliant performances, the power of this divorce drama might lie in its human accuracy and empathy and in how it shows us how easily we can both save and destroy the people we love.
For more about the Venice film festival, visit www.labiennale.org