*I’m not much of a movie reviewer, so this “review” will quickly degenerate into a list of things I really really liked about the movie.*
I thought A Marriage Story was a really great film, though saying I enjoyed it doesn’t quite seem the right way of putting it. This movie absolutely destroyed me, leavening me empty of feeling before giving me a slight hint of hope an its end. And I loved every minute of it.
Directed by Noah Baumbach, A Marriage Story is on Netflix and stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a divorce. They were both great, and really they carried the film. Many shots of one of these two talking is simply focused on their face, deriving the emotional weight up the scene from facial expressions and slight shifts in body language. When Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) first meets with her divorce attorney, Nora, there is a long shot in which Nicole is narrating the rise and fall of her and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) marriage. The scene is captivating, but Nicole is hardly seen. While she gives the details on the broken marriage and tells her story, viewers mostly see the office room they’re in while she steps away into the next room.
The movie opens brilliantly, with each partner talking about what they love about the other. Turns out that these beautiful essays were an exercise given to them my a mediator who will be helping them navigate their separation and divorce. Charlie and Nicole each show their role up front. Charlie is almost too confident and is eager to share his glowing essay with Nicole. But she is conflicted and distraught; she refuses to share.
Charlie’s confidence (arrogance really) greatly contributes to his downfall. As Nicole moves from New York to LA and finds an attorney (played by Laura Dern who is brilliant), Charlie is more and more frustrated as things escalate and do not comport with his vision of their life together.
Neither Charlie nor Nicole are portrayed as “the bad guy,” though there may be some villains in the film. The divorce attorneys are really the only ones who benefit from the whole situation. Though Alan Alda’s character acts as a mediating, tempered voice in the proceedings until Charlie replaces him with another cutthroat LA divorce lawyer who will go toe-to-toe with Nicole’s laywer. Their family and friends on the sidelines are obstacles too, however well-intentioned many of them are.
The tone of this movie is very warm and subdued. The film quality almost seems grainy making things feel comfortable and nostalgic. Despite the emotional weight of what is going on, Driver and Johansson are held back and reserved until a few select moments when they allow their frustration and their pain to breach the surface. We see this again when Charlie sings “Being Alive.” It stuck out to me that viewers could have been given the feeling of the scene by seeing the reactions of his friends as he sings this plea, but instead we simply watch Charlie in one camera view, singing the song with feeling but not overt emotion–somehow pulling the audience along into the sense of longing mixed with hope conveyed by the song.
Somebody need me too much
Somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive
Make me alive
Make me aliveStephen Sondheim, “Being Alive” (Company, 1970)
The audience is allowed some measure of hope in the film’s ending, not that Charlie and Nicole might reconcile their marriage, but that they may be able to grow as people. They might continue to love, despite it all.