“Everything’s like everything in a relationship, don’t you find that?” This is the question Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) asks at the start of Marriage Story. She’s talking about the first pangs of love, so infectiously euphoric, so all-encompassing, that they don’t just make you fall for someone, but for everything about them all at once. Noah Baumbach’s latest film isn’t interested in the bright glow of new beginnings. Instead, it is here to show that there is just as much truth to the flip-side of this sentiment, at the other end of proceedings, through the slow collapse of a marriage and the pains of divorce. It is a love story – one about trying to hold onto what love is left as the hurt and anger of separation threatens to tear apart all it touches.
The central couple begin this journey with honourable intentions. Nicole is an actress, feeling subservient and stifled in her marriage and longing to make something of her own by getting back to her roots in LA, where she grew up and first encountered acting success. Charlie (Adam Driver), is a self-made, up and coming avant-garde theatre director desperate to keep their son, Henry, in New York with him, where his career finally seems to be taking off. Regarding their split, they say that they’re ‘doing it differently’: this is going to be as amicable a divorce as possible. But in matters of the heart, things are never quite that simple.
The film evidently owes much to Woody Allen, with its LA – New York dichotomy, focus on show business, and soon-to-be-over dysfunctional relationship. And there are some scenes of similarly astounding invention here, as good as anything in Allen. The serving of divorce papers becomes an intricate, whirlwind ballet of people frantically entering and leaving a kitchen as the critical moment looms ever larger. Here it isn’t Hitchcock’s bomb under the table at work, but Baumbach’s manila envelope of legal papers on the counter. It’s a masterfully constructed, dizzying balancing act between the sorrowful, the suspenseful and the comic (I challenge anyone to name, in cinematic history, a pecan pie that got a bigger laugh).
Baumbach manages to pull off the same trick in numerous legal scenes dotted throughout. Guiding the young couple through this torturous process are three divorce lawyers, brilliantly portrayed by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, each with their own take on what divorce is really all about. Liotta especially deserves a mention for his performance as a snarling attack-dog of a lawyer, determined to win no matter how vile and undignified his methods.
But while it is clear that there is great fun to be had here, the film sets its sights on weightier ground. From the first shot of Johansson emerging from the blackness of a darkened stage, Baumbach is consistently, at critical points, happy to drop everything and let the camera push in and rest on his actors’ faces, sometimes for minutes on end. It’s a sign of a director who trusts his two leads completely, and he’s right to. The performances are extraordinary, featuring little glances revealing years of accumulated hurt (watch Nicole every time someone, even she, calls Charlie a genius), to full-throated cries of helplessness. These moments are all about the veins throbbing on their foreheads, the fearful determination in their unblinking eyes, the snot threatening to flood out of their nostrils. It’s unflinchingly visceral stuff.
In a lesser film, some of these key climactic confrontations could be seen as, at best, a melodramatic indulgence, or, at worst, a threat to the film’s otherwise carefully woven realism. But Baumbach knows exactly what he’s doing. The close juxtaposition between the heart-wrenchingly emotional and the soothingly ordinary is what is at the heart of this film. Sometimes it is only the cutting of hair, or the tying of a shoelace, that can cut through the rage and hurt swirling all around.
“It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore,” says Nicole, explaining how her marriage fell apart. This is a film that dares to show, and embrace, love at its ugliest and most desperate, and to suggest that it can grow even stronger as a result. It may just be the most honest, human film of the year.
*“Marriage Story” is currently streaming on Netflix