Marriage Story beautifully captures the universal element of all stories in that it signifies the universal truths about humans and how they form relationships. The narrative takes you along the tumultuous journey as Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) marriage decays. However, rather than placing my relationship with a significant other in perspective, their strive acts as a mirror to my relationship not only with non-romantic others, but also myself. Charlie and Nicole’s relationship moves from a respectful, loving bliss to a dark place of hurt which is capitalised on in the film’s most iconic argument, and finally mutual love and respect, with a central goal in mind.
The film starts with the characters describing each others’ best elements – the descriptions are unpretentious, searingly honest, and because of that, very believable. From the get go, you’re completely in touch with both Nicole and Charlie because of their dialogue that flows seamlessly. Apart from the relatability of Nicole and Charlie, supporting characters like Nora (Laura Derm), Jay (Ray Liotta) and Sandra (Julie Haggerty) seem like they were taken from a scene out of your own life. Mother’s line, “even though I have a dead gay husband, I manage to get up every day and live my life to the fullest”, is so punchy it should be a mantra to your life. Laura Dern’s Oscar-winning performance is validated in one scene; where she single-handedly speaks up for the unjust, unequal treatment of women and mothers everywhere in a monologue which should be regarded as the 21st century feminist manifesto:
“We can accept an imperfect Dad. Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was only invented like 30 years ago. Before that fathers were expected to be silent and absent and unreliable and selfish and we can all say that we want them to be different but on some basic level we accept them, we love them for their fallibilities. But people absolutely don’t accept those same failings in mothers. We don’t accept it structurally and we don’t accept it spiritually because the basis of our Judeo Christian Whatever is Mary Mother of Jesus and she’s perfect. […] You’ll always be held to a different, higher standard and it’s fucked up, but that’s the way it is.”
Marriage Story is a beautiful film – its grainy visuals with subdued and warm colouring is physically comforting. Charlie and Nicole both work in theater and the link is present throughout, with random, often bizarre, snippets of Charlie’s play rehearsal acting as both a visual element, and a symbolic representation of life (if I can flaunt my degree for a little bit, may I?). As there is no contextual information behind these scenes, we’re reminded of the central element to the film – that despite Hollywood’s best attempts at disproving this, no one really knows what happens between two people once their marriage has failed. However, what makes Marriage Story so incredible is that it very nearly allows us into that inner circle.
It seems everyone involved in this film were so perfectly in sync that you get a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of two people who you may know, or who may even be you. What makes this depiction, and its coinciding raw descriptions, so difficult at times, is that it hits very close to home. Some scenes, like the tender moment when Nicole orders Charlie’s lunch in the middle of their divorce settlement, or when she strokes his hair after a particularly heated discussion, hit so close to home that you wish you could delay the eventual conclusion to the film, since you already know that the conclusion to their relationship is one you don’t WANT to hit close to home. This rationale may explain why it took me two weeks to finish watching this film.
Relationships and noise: “Who the fuck is us?”
A particularly difficult scene to watch and process was Nicole’s beautiful monologue with her lawyer where she explains what went wrong in their relationship. I’ve relayed some of my favourite lines from that scene to my colleagues a few times, but here we go again:
“I had never come alive for myself, I was just feeding his aliveness. I didn’t even know what my taste was anymore because I had never been asked to use it. He didn’t see me as something separate from himself.”
Nicole’s isolation in her relationship is felt by everyone at least once in their lives. Whether it be from friends, family or yourself, it’s very normal to, at some point, feel completely estranged. However, Charlie’s reasoning that Nicole places herself in that position also begs the question whether we are sometimes our own downfall. In their aforementioned tense and dramatic argument, both actors’ powerful monologue reminds me of our own inner voices constantly pulling us into the direction of self-deprecating behaviour. When Nicole confronts Charlie about his affair with the play’s stage manager, she berates him for not even loving her, to which he replies: “No, I didn’t love her, but at least she didn’t hate me.” This reminds me of our penchant to sell ourselves short for a fleeting moment of intimacy with someone else as a means to combat our own loneliness.
The bureaucracy around their divorce begs the question “why get married in the first place? Why form any relationship if the desecration thereof is almost as tiring as building it up in the first place?” The concluding scene, however, answers this very pessimistic question. With Charlie walking away with Henry after a very amicable family event, resulting in Nicole offering up one of her evenings, the feeling is extremely bittersweet. The tenderness between Charlie and Nicole points to the realisation that while relationships are difficult to sustain, they are necessary to stay alive. As Charlie’s lawyer informs him: “Whether we win or lose, it’ll be the two of you having to figure this out together”. Charlie and Nicole needed to hate each other to realise that they like each other, and through that, love each other again.
Marriage Story is a wild journey of introspection – as Ian Kerner, a couple’s therapist states, there is a real potential for Charlie and Nicole to hear and learn from each other because they had the capacity to learn. What I love most about this film, however, is that I learned a lot about myself and relationships as well.