Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a deftly written divorce drama, was one of the best films at TIFF19.
With a title like Marriage Story, which implies universality, it’s notable how specific Noah Baumbach’s film is. Transparently inspired by Baumbach’s own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, the characters in the film are also a director and his actress muse who have a son together, just like Baumbach and Jason Leigh. The characters in the film are angry and bitter, but Marriage Story, is not bitter but confessional — apologetic, even. He reflects even-handedly on where both sides went wrong, pulling no punches when it comes to deriding himself. What results is a gruelling but ultimately optimistic film about the horrors of divorce and how hard it is to learn, grow, and move on.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are both excellent as Nicole and Charlie, a couple who were together for 12 years and collaborated with each other in a New York theatre company. Baumbach opens on an idyllic voiceover montage where Nicole and Charlie take turns listing the things they love about each other. It’s shot with warm colours and an energetic, handheld camera — a welcoming, light aesthetic from a happier time. We hard cut to the present day, at the beginning of the couple’s divorce proceedings, when they are seen through more staid cinematography. It’s a stark juxtaposition that leaves us wondering what went wrong in the interim, or more accurately, what was bubbling under the surface, left unspoken, during those happier times?
Nicole’s and Charlie’s bitterness toward each other is fuelled not only by a vicious custody battle but also a fear that they wasted their twenties on each other. At the time, Nicole was so in love with Charlie that she didn’t see the ways in which he was stifling her: insisting they stay in New York rather than her hometown of LA, seeing her as the muse when she wanted to be the artist, and insisting the two of them funnel all their funds into the theatre company he created. In a series of brilliantly written and acted arguments between the ex-couple — which deftly move between amicable discussion, screaming insults, and crying embraces — Baumbach explores the complicated and unique relationship between divorcees, and how that tenuous dynamic is aggravated tenfold by the involvement of divorce lawyers.
An interesting comparison can be made between Marriage Story and Derek Cianfrance’s relentlessly bleak Blue Valentine (2010), which also follows a couple’s failing marriage and their fight over child custody. Marriage Story has its desperate, hopeless moments too, but it doesn’t bury itself in darkness like Blue Valentine. Baumbach highlights that they learned things from being together that will better equip them for life alone and with future partners. In one of the year’s most moving scenes, the film suddenly becomes a musical, as Adam Driver breaks into a spontaneous rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company. The song — about the passionate, often invigorating, often toxic ups and downs of romantic relationships — is the perfect send-off to Nicole’s and Charlie’s partnership.