BFI London Film Festival 2019: Marriage Story
The best film scripts are the ones with dialogue so real, so recognisable, that it cuts deep and seeks out a part of your memory which you thought you’d buried. In one scene in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole and Adam Driver’s Charlie sit down to have a reasonable discussion about the logistics of their impending, increasingly complicated and messy divorce. It starts amicably, but before long they’re digging into the wounds that their failing marriage has already created, inching their knives in further with every biting insult, until the most unfathomable words are spoken in the furious desire that they both have to hurt each other as much as possible.
Everyone who’s experienced the breakdown of a relationship, be it their own or of someone close to them, understands the seemingly inexplicable sensation of simultaneously feeling both immense love and burning hate towards another person. Another, equally realistic ‘divorce film’, Celeste and Jesse Forever, shows the full spectrum of these emotions with the use of montages and flashbacks of happier moments, urging emotional responses through scenes of tortured affection, but Marriage Story focuses almost solely on that period of time between the suggestion of divorce and then its finalisation. The moments that make your heart ache—and there are many—come instead from somewhere much more raw. An accidental, self-incurred flesh wound that provides both comic relief and tension over what this pain might do to someone already hurting. Lines such as, “I feel like I’m in a dream”, or “I fell in love with him two seconds after I met him”, which in another story would signal hope and warmth; here they are delivered with an almost tangible sense of heartbreak.
Charlie is a theatre director and Nicole has been his muse for ten years. At times, the dialogue is also theatrical, but not in an on-the-nose way, since it somehow also feels improvised in its veracity: it’s in the comedic timing, the perfectly delivered, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quips. Marriage Story should be purely devastating, and much of it is, but it’s also frequently hilarious, not least due to the talents of its cast. Merritt Weaver, having just played a stoic, matriarchal police detective in Netflix’s Unbelievable, is here the bumbling sister of Nicole, while Laura Dern’s glorious divorce lawyer Nora is not too dissimilar to the high-powered, high-class Renata Klein she embodied in Big Little Lies (Ray Liotta as Charlie’s lawyer is a somewhat more confusing casting choice, but it works nonetheless).
Nicole enters Nora’s office for the first time confessing that her life for the past ten years has been an attachment of Charlie’s, with a voice inside of her that begged for independence getting harder to ignore. Later, Nora gives a cutting speech about how, in the eyes of society, men are rewarded for simply showing up as fathers, whereas women are berated and judged for every perceived parenting misstep. In the courtroom, we see snippets of arguments and offhand comments morph into scathing indictments, bullets to be used towards Charlie and Nicole. Rarely has the breakup of a marriage and a family been portrayed in such an honest, unflinching way.
Despite being a film about what happens after the love has ended, there is love to be found in abundance here. Quiet, tender moments that will stay with you indefinitely. An inside joke, a family’s quirky habits, a knowing smile. A child reading words from a letter that he won’t properly understand for years, but that one day will make so much sense to him that it’ll hurt. Every so often, a film asks us to do with it what we do when we fall in love; it asks us to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to heartbreak and pain, and we do so with open arms. We do so knowing the consequences, and because it’s all we know. Marriage Story is as beautiful, complex and authentic as any corporeal experience of romantic love, and it hits you just as hard when it’s over.