by Demi Kampakis
Dir. Noah Baumbach, U.S., Netflix
Hurt people hurt people. Truer words could not be spoken when considering Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s achingly personal new film that just might compete with Frances Ha as the director’s crowning achievement—a devastating gut-punch that visits the emotional battlefield of divorce in its compassionate depiction of one couple’s matrimonial dissolution, and the financial and familial wreckage left in its wake.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play married couple Charlie and Nicole, urbane thespian Brooklynites who share a young son, Henry (the impressive Azhy Robertson, whom one might recall from SNL’s famous “Wells for Boys” sketch). Charlie is a critically acclaimed, though niche, avant-garde theater director, and Nicole has long been his shining star. Once a movie actress with a promising career—having hailed from a family of actors—L.A.-native Nicole left the West Coast and the screen behind when she met Charlie, eventually settling in New York and devoting herself to being the prime vehicle for his work. We’re first introduced to Charlie and Nicole through separate but brief montages that encapsulate each of their personalities and idiosyncrasies, narrated by Charlie and Nicole extolling the virtues of their spouse.
A scene set in the present day follows the montages, and immediately curdles their tender sentiment. With Charlie and Nicole sitting in what looks to be a shrink’s office, a wide gap between them emphasized by cold lighting, it’s revealed that these humbling and loving proclamations of endearment were homework assignments given to them by a marriage mediator. (Nicole refuses to read hers out loud.) Charlie and Nicole have gone through rough patches before, but for the first time it looks like this one is going to stick—primarily because Nicole has finally decided to leave the theater company and forge her own career, and with Henry, she temporarily moves to L.A. to shoot a TV pilot. Nicole’s move to the other side of the country is a reminder of the increasing emotional gulf between her and Charlie, even if she has yet to consciously realize this herself—because ostensibly, the plan is for her to move back to NY once shooting wraps on the series.
This is certainly what Charlie thinks, anyway, for although things have been strained in his marriage, he sees no cause for concern, because this TV gig contractually obligates their (trial) separation. So it’s no surprise he’s gobsmacked when, upon visiting Nicole and Henry in L.A., he’s served divorce papers by Nicole’s sister Cassie (Merritt Wever, the film’s most physically animated comic relief). Everything begins to spiral from there.
For all the rifts in their marriage, Charlie and Nicole clearly share a mutual respect and friendship, so both assume they’ll have an amicable divorce. It’s once we learn more about the couple’s origin story, fleshed out in a winding, heartbreaking monologue Nicole delivers to her prospective, feistily competent divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (the usual scene-stealing Laura Dern, who’s once again showing her lawyerly bona fides following Certain Women and Big Little Lies), that fractures and shades of resentment start coming to light. With Nora as a supportive, even goading, ear, Nicole takes serious stock of these fractures in a way she had never before—and this new souring of their history and dynamic in her mind prompts Nicole to hire Nora and pursue an aggressive divorce. On the defensive and reeling from shock, things go from bad to worse for Charlie when he learns that Nicole plans on permanently staying in L.A. with Henry. Greatly complicating matters is the fact that Charlie’s play is moving to Broadway, for which he received a MacArthur Genius Grant, further tethering his life to New York (the two coastal cities become inspired stand-ins for each character). Traveling back and forth and panicked at the thought of living 3,000 miles away from his only child, Charlie becomes increasingly embroiled in a devolving and financially draining custody battle. Not one to care about fighting for material assets or money in a split, Charlie never imagined that he would be dragged into the worst-case divorce scenario by Nicole’s viper of an attorney. After all, it was understood that Nicole could have everything, so Charlie sees all this as gratuitously cold-hearted. Driver wears his character’s mounting disbelief and wounded sense of betrayal all over his face, as he becomes further mired in a maze of lawyer fees and convoluted legalese at the expense of Henry’s college fund.
Driver has always instinctively tapped into the scrappiest reserves of human emotion and behavior, and he both gracefully and jaggedly demonstrates this in the subtle tics and gestures that communicate the tangible progression of Charlie’s confusion and desperation—as he flails and runs the gamut of emotional responses, often in the same instant, the way one would when they’re in over their head. It’s there in his escalating legal frustrations, his hurt and exasperation that Henry seems to be drifting from him, the disheartening realization that he and Nicole no longer share parental solidarity, and in his incredulous, pleading looks to the person he used to know like a book, trying to find old, familiar flickers of common ground but only seeing a stranger. Backed into a corner, Charlie eventually weaponizes his helpless frustration and vows to fight for his son by recruiting an equally cutthroat attorney, Jay (a bulldozing Ray Liotta). Baumbach depicts divorce as a destabilizing nightmare that’s crushing in its isolation, and Driver exudes the lonely despair and controlled hysteria of someone trying desperately to find a life raft and maintain normalcy—for himself and his son—amidst the chaos.
Yet Charlie is not blameless. He too has betrayed Nicole, both explicitly and implicitly in taking her for granted and dismissing her own needs and desires. To the extent that the divorce is Nicole’s platform to finally assert her agency as an artist, parent, and autonomous human being, Baumbach rejects the notion that her actions are simply a lover’s petty revenge. People are flawed, and divorce is just an extension of that human fallibility. Both parties are right and wrong, guilty and aggrieved, and Baumbach’s evenhanded empathy constantly shifts our sympathies in this emotional tug of war.
Resentments and grudges can only brew for so long before they boil over—and when that happens, things are said that can never be taken back, and the most grotesque, insecure parts of ourselves are irrevocably revealed. Such is the case with Marriage Story’s centerpiece confrontation. Shot in Charlie’s new apartment, with its bare, furniture-less trappings and artless walls, the confrontation benefits from this minimalist mise-en-scène, for it makes Charlie and Nicole’s exchange more cerebral by focusing viewers’ attention on their words rather than the imagery. With the staging and framing reminiscent of theater, it’s as though Charlie and Nicole are acting in the play of their lives.
The scene’s harrowing emotional beats will be uncomfortably recognizable to anyone who’s gone through an ugly breakup, grew up in a dysfunctional household, or was the child of divorce. What starts out as an attempt between Charlie and Nicole to settle their differences after a particularly ugly court dispute—the awkward trepidation and jittery tension suspended in the open space between them; both unsure of where or how to even begin this conversation—crescendos into a showdown of both petty and loaded jabs and seething contempt, as what feels like a lifetime of past grievances surface with guttural anguish. The word transcendent is overused in film criticism, but this scene (eleven pages, in the script) represents an artistic alchemy between Baumbach and his committed leads—the synergy of accomplished craft and urgent catharsis—and reaches an unbearable tenor that’s breathtaking. Driver and Johansson’s beautifully calibrated mix of psychological precision, temperamental spontaneity, and stripped emotional intimacy is impossible to look away from, though you may want to.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography heightens this gnarly immediacy, shooting in a portrait-style aspect ratio that always remains fixed on Nicole and Charlie’s faces. Driver and Johansson unearth every nook and cranny of a crumbling relationship: the disparity of commitment and emotional investment; the feeling of being gaslighted coupled with the sting of betrayal; the oscillations between self-pity and impulsive outburst; the passive aggressive hostility-turned-incivility; the fleeting, reflexive looks of lingering affection and fondness; the dreadful realization that you no longer recognize the person you shared a life with and the sinking feeling that everything you’ve built together was a lie; the quiet suffering and destructive psychic toll; and the volcanic, exhausting game of one-upmanship.
Baumbach makes sure to balance the film’s pathos and gravitas with a generous dose of screwball humor. The absurdities of the divorce process are visited in detail—the psychoanalytic outsourcing of a relationship’s nuanced complexity to strangers, the legal obligation to pay a portion of your spouse’s attorney fees, the court proceedings that sterilize a marriage’s unique history into a craven proxy battle of legal wits, and having a sacred part of your life reduced to statistics. In this way, Marriage Story confronts the nature of divorce as a dehumanizing, lucrative institution: probing not just its emotional dynamics but also its social, structural, and economic ones.
Despite the lawyers providing welcome levity through their eccentric personalities and professional savvy (including Alan Alda’s world-weary Bert Spitz, who ultimately shows he doesn’t have quite the mettle to get in the dirty trenches like Nora and Jay), the film doesn’t ignore the tragic depersonalization that’s introduced when the law intervenes. This is crystallized in the film’s sole courtroom scene, as Ryan’s camera makes sure to stay only on our duo’s faces, emphasizing their humiliation as every aspect of their relationship is inspected under a pitiless public microscope. Caught up in the litigious maelstrom and bombarded by a flurry of attacks and low blows by the opposing counsel, Charlie and Nicole register remorseful shame on their defeated faces, as each ex-lover uses innocuous past comments and observations as a cudgel against the other. Utterly saddened that it has come to this, they’ve surprised themselves with how low they’re willing to stoop in the fog of judicial competitiveness. In violating each other’s trust and emotional safety just to score legal points, Charlie and Nicole have permanently severed something sacred; and Driver and Johansson agonizingly demonstrate their gnawing, sickening awareness of this.
Perhaps not since Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (and before that, Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage) has a film unearthed each stone in a relationship’s disintegration with such brutally effective, wrenchingly sober yet sympathetic honesty. Baumbach has always excelled at drawing rich characters whose narcissism is palatable, even endearing, because it comes from a complicated and compelling psychic place—and in Marriage Story, Charlie and Nicole’s own ego and vanity are ever present. Rather than creating an emotional distance with viewers, these traits draw us further into their perspectives, because they’re rendered with familiarity and vulnerable, bumbling humanity. Because divorce brings out the ugliest in people, Charlie and Nicole become projections of our best and worst selves—and one can’t help but be drawn into their lives, despite their prickly or selfish behavior. As Jay notes to Charlie, “As a defense lawyer you see the best of the worst people, and as a divorce lawyer you see the worst of the best people.” The novelistic depth of detail Baumbach brings to his characters—and the specific, throwaway ancillary observations, like Charlie not knowing Nicole’s phone number—give a very specific story universal resonance.
Although Baumbach himself would chafe at the notion—as he did during the film’s NYFF press screening—that Marriage Story has echoes of the director’s own romantic past, one can’t help but wonder whether or not this film is his attempt to grapple with the guilt and grief of his own transgressions, and the scandal that shrouded his dissolved first marriage. There’s an implicit eroticism at the center of an artist’s inspired relationship to his or her muse, and the sensual, soulful and spiritual charge that happens when artistic collaboration intersects with romantic and sexual chemistry always hangs in the margins of Nicole and Charlie’s origin story. Their plays were a testament to their bond—the work of two artists on the same creative and emotional wavelength, feeding off of each other’s energies. Charlie and Nicole’s professions also become instruments for exploring their shades of narcissism, and the emotional volatility that comes with being in love with an artist. Artists are nothing if not great at expressing themselves in a way that fits their tortured narrative, and in a similar vein to the characters in Mike Nichols’s Closer, these hyper-articulate people of privilege wring pathos in the sincerity of their communicated pain. It’s riveting to watch Driver’s Charlie implode in front of our eyes, at the same time that Johansson’s Nicole is building herself up.
Marriage is a fragile and fraught enterprise that can quickly wither without proper care. Here, Baumbach charts the emotional topography of this withering with humor and anguish. Despite its emotional scars, Marriage Story ends on a hopeful note that’s equal parts melancholic and contemplative. Finally, there’s no choice but to lick your wounds and move on.