'Marriage Story' or the art of severance

Noah Baumbach’s narrative does a wonderful job of revealing the retrospective romance of companionship through the procedural pain of separation

Marriage Story begins with memories of order. A man remembers the good traits of his wife. A woman remembers the noble traits of her husband. The rest of the film is about them trying to forget that man and woman.

Noah Baumbach’s narrative does a wonderful job of revealing the retrospective romance of companionship through the procedural pain of separation. You sense the marriage that was, through the divorce that is: The kisses through the rage, the lofty promises through the bitter breakdowns, the rhapsody through the resentment, the sunrise through the sunset. You sense the mentor-muse chemistry through the failure of young parenthood. You sense the myth-making through the heart breaks.

Shades of love

But more than anything, you sense the disillusionment of two artists who discover that love might have been a parasitic arrangement to aid their voices. They spend so long using each other to create on stage that not even their purest symbol of creation – a child – can keep them from vacating that stage after the curtains close. They spend so long understanding the language of each other’s escapism that life feels like a meek reaction to their reality. Compatibility becomes a Broadway dream. Passion becomes a rough draft.

Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is an actress. She likes being the story. Nicole’s marriage was directed by a man. Her divorce is directed by a woman. In the end, Nicole becomes a director. She directs TV episodes, where she can use a lens finder to frame an edited version of life. She is not a theatre director, where everything is live and there is no scope for retakes and second chances. She has spent her twenties in – and on – a stage that didn’t allow her to make mistakes. Even her monologue about her relationship (“Everything is like everything else in a marriage”) to her lawyer is shot like a chamber drama; an unbroken take in an office, as though the spotlight were on her. She’d much rather be the conductor of emotions now.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theatre director. He likes telling the story. Charlie’s marriage was unrehearsed. His divorce is too rehearsed. In the end, Charlie becomes a performer. He is forced to act like the perfect father in front of a supervisor. He has to be apathetic in court, while being the cooperative adult off it. He sings ‘Being Alive’ on an informal stage that allows him to make mistakes. Even his outburst with Nicole is theatrical, as though he is still trying to show an errant actor what a violent meltdown should look like. He’d much rather go back to being the conductor of circumstances.

Scrutinising lives

Charlie has made such a successful career out of instructing and scrutinising Nicole that he forgets to respect her. Nicole has made such a productive career out of respecting and listening to Charlie that she forgets to scrutinise him.

The divorce – the lawyers, the custody battle, the dirty linen – becomes a compensatory exercise to set the scales right: She stops listening to him and takes a hardcore legal route to scrutinise his character. He stops instructing her and follows her route to respect her revolution. It gets hellish and intense because both of them have subconsciously embraced a short-term process to restore the loss of long-term balance. She looks like the perpetrator because she was too reasonable in their years together; he sounds like the victim because he was too self-absorbed in their time together. They exchange roles in a manner that exposes the unique tragedy of ambition confined by the vanity of talent.

Eventually, the ugly process has no bearing on the final outcome. Charlie and Nicole continue the same equal agreement that they had decided upon before the lawyers took over. But what the process does do – apart from validating their estrangement – is trigger a belated sense of evolution. He evolves emotionally, she evolves professionally. He takes up a residency in Los Angeles for his son, she becomes an Emmy-nominated director. While La La Land tells the musical tale of a couple whose temporary union catalyses the permanence of their dreams, Marriage Story untells the permanence of a couple that lets their dreams determine the demise of their union.

The traumatic nature of the divorce helps Charlie and Nicole arrive at a juncture midway between the art of love and the love of art. It helps them remember one another as parents, as humans, as complete pieces of a broken whole. As selfish artists confronting the selflessness of parenthood. And perhaps, on a good day, as literary characters stuck in a void between stage and screen. After all, no marriage is a story until it truly ends. No last word is a letter until it is read

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 2:12:39 AM |

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