Marriage Story ★★★★

Noah Baumbach’s latest feature is a heartbreaking AU in which actress Gena Rowlands divorces her director husband John Cassavetes in order to move to LA and further her film acting career. FINE, IT’S NOT REALLY AND I’M JUST PROJECTING, but the staging and direction are jam-packed with influences derived from mid-century art-house cinema, from the raw fervor of Cassavetes dramas to the florid, verbose monologues of Ingmar Bergman. In one scene, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) meets with divorce lawyer Nora (Laura Dern), and their lengthy conversation is framed similarly to those famous profile shots from Persona (1966). It’s a nice allusion, but one that doesn’t really contribute anything story-wise. Is Baumbach suggesting that Nora and Nicole are one and the same, or that they’re fusing now as they share their stories, or that they’re complete opposites? None of these options really ring true. 

But when he uses this technique to shoot conversations between Nicole and Charlie (Adam Driver), suddenly the themes of dual identity and loss of individual personality click into place. In order to foster a successful marriage, a couple must figure out how to fuse together in a way that doesn’t completely suffocate their own internal needs and wants. Historically, in heterosexual unions, the burden falls on the wife to sacrifice her career goals for her husband’s. In the US, it wasn’t until the 1960s that women could have their own bank accounts, and it took a decade more for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to pass, which gave single, widowed, or divorced women the right to legally apply for a credit card without requiring a man to co-sign it. How were they to leave their husbands and start a new life with no money and no agency?

None of this is lost on Nora, who unleashes a spot-on monologue about our society’s obsession with the so-called flawless mother. “So, you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be a fuck up and it doesn’t matter. You will always be held to a different, higher standard,” she states. “And it’s fucked up, but that’s the way it is.”

Sometimes, the only way to cope with being a fuck up is to stand in front of all your friends and belt out a Sondheim number in its entirety, dialogue asides and all! The line between realism and camp is blurrier than it seems (see: every Gena Rowlands performance ever), and it’s this particular intersection where undistilled emotion thrives. Because the thing is, for artists and the sensitive, real life is campy. Divorce really does feel like you’re standing up in front of all the people you care about, spotlight burning through your skin, a thousand eyes on you as you confess your most vulnerable loneliness and most personal failures.

Full disclosure, I have no experience whatsoever with divorce, but this is what Marriage Story makes me imagine it feels like. And isn’t that one of the goals of cinema, and art in general? To transform one’s own personal story into something universal-adjacent? To articulate the minute complexities of life with primal authenticity rather than stringent veracity? To induce a collective amnesia that makes us all forget that Johansson chronically steals roles from the marginalized and vocally supports Woody Allen, just because she delivers one of the best performances of the year? 

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