“I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I'll never stop loving him, even though it doesn't make sense anymore." - Nicole Barber in Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019) is, first and foremost, a love story. It tells the story of a couple, Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) as they go through a messy divorce. Despite the circumstances of their separation, the film focuses closely on what brought them together and who kept them together. The film even begins with narrated montages of what both Charlie and Nicole love about each other, creating an illusion of marital bliss which is cruelly torn away as we realize the narration was from letters written in marriage counseling. Nevertheless, the audience is left with the question of how these two people, who seem so compatible, could ever become so hostile to each other.
The seeds of the answer are sown right from the beginning, hidden in the couple’s letters to each other. A large proportion of what Charlie admires about Nicole centers around what she does for him, and the sacrifices she makes for the family. This hints at the larger conflict of priorities between the two. Nicole’s letter alludes to her difficulty with expressing her own ambitions and preferences. The collision of these traits forms the backbone of their conflict, but part of the beauty of Marriage Story is that it examines Charlie and Nicole’s relationship beyond their differences. The film manages to tell the story of their entire relationship through reflections from their relationship’s end.
As the film progresses, the divorce proceedings get increasingly messy, and Charlie is forced to choose between work and the chance to retain partial custody of their son. Although Charlie wants to work things out without legal help, Nicole enlists the help of a ruthless lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), abdicating as much responsibility as possible. Nora’s overzealous pursuit of the case leads to even more animosity between Charlie and Nicole. The film seems to bounce between the two of them, building and breaking sympathy as the couple tear apart their relationship.
Marriage Story bears a striking resemblance to another story of a marriage falling apart. Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) also tells the story of a relationship tearing itself apart. Set in Milan, La Notte’s beautiful black and white cinematography chronicles one day and one night in the life of Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau). As the characters interact, the audience learns that Giovanni’s restlessness and infidelity has led to issues in their marriage.
Unlike Marriage Story, La Notte does not try to be impartial. Giovanni is clearly the cause of the suffering in the marriage, but the establishment of this allows Antonioni to explore how the collapse of the relationship affects Lidia and changes how she sees the the past. Happy memories turn bitter and become painful for Lidia because of the context of the present. Both Antonioni and Baumbach understand how people’s perceptions of the past sour in response to present strife, and they both subject their characters to this pain.
Both directors also use written letters to represent the way their characters perceive their partners. Love letters appear in both films, containing words so personal that the characters struggle to express them in person. These letters are the past, idealized version of the relationships, but also hint at the future. Although both films focus on separation and loss, neither ignores what remains after a breakup. What remains in the failing relationships is something which was there at the beginning, but has become obscured by pain in the imperfect memories of the couples. Only the objective written word can reveal the truth, and in both films the characters struggle with the split between how they feel and how they felt.
Marriage Story is never heavy handed with a message. Baumbach instead prefers to use the film as a close examination of a relationship while leaving enough ambiguities so that the takeaway is found in how the viewer relates to the story. Baumbach employs the same strategy of dissecting a failing relationship in his earlier film, Frances Ha (2012), the story of two friends drifting apart. In both Marriage Story and Frances Ha Baumbach uses these archetypal relationships to explore how people change and the way that change affects others.
Like many of Baumbach’s other films, Marriage Story is available for streaming on Netflix. I highly recommend La Notte to anyone who enjoyed Marriage Story, and is interested in a movie that approaches many of the same themes in a slightly different manner. La Notte is available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes and available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.