I remembered watching Scarlett Johansson’s interview on Ellen about Marriage Story a while back when she couldn’t really explained what the film is about (to be fair, it isn’t exactly just a divorce film). But, then I caught Adam Driver on Colbert and he managed to tell us about their new film. Even though I thought I knew what the film was going to be, I still didn’t know what I was into. After the film ends, I kept on thinking about the characters, judging the husband and relating more to the wife (you will too). But, not until I discussed it with several friends that I got an “ah ha” moment that I, actually, could relate to both of them.
What is it about?
Aptly named, Marriage Story tells about a marriage between a couple, a stage director and an actress, named Charlie and Nicole and they are undergoing a divorce. The film starts with a beautiful monologue from both of them, narrating what they like about their spouse. It was a beautiful insight to get to know characters in a film, but don’t smile first as it only disappoints because they are seeking counsel before ending their marriage. What happened? This is where the film gets interesting for me. When a divorce happen, it’s most likely a big catastrophic event preceded, but it’s quite absurd to think that a marriage ends because love is no longer there, or at least that’s what the film is trying to tell us.
As the film progressed, we learn about the catastrophic event that led them here. Once a promising starlet, Nicole left her career in LA and got married to Charlie in New York and became a stage actress. She enjoyed the attention, the thrill of doing something new and different. Nicole thought she would be the star in Charlie’s experimentation play, but people came to see Charlie and not her. As years went by she got more frustrated when Charlie didn’t agree on moving to Los Angeles so she can be closer to her family and work there. Feeling that she lost her voice and identity, Nicole filed for divorce. As we watched Nicole narrating her life story to the cutthroat LA lawyer (played by the incomparable Laura Dern), it’s hard not to feel sympathetic and take her side. Who wants to be in a relationship with a partner who undermines you and don’t paid attention about your needs? We get it. But, as she continued to tell her story, Nicole confessed that Charlie also cheated on her. Was she mad? Perhaps, but maybe not the reason why they got the divorce.
When the film starts, Nicole inform us that Charlie is a self-made guy, coming from a dysfunctional family to a hotshot stage director with a play moving to Broadway – Charlie is a hot shit. Not only that, he is also a great father, albeit not a great husband according to Nicole, but he enjoys fatherhood most than other fathers would be. When Nicole asked for divorce, Charlie couldn’t wrap his head around the idea. Maybe because he never thought she would leave him? No, really, he lives in this fantasy, as Nicole even recalled, thinking he is in a good marriage oblivious to his wife’s wants and needs. He even went as far as to non-apologetically said that he cheated on Nicole because she wasn’t giving him the attention in bed and his infidelity didn’t mean anything. Charlie is a self-absorbed, delusional guy who got a reality kick after the divorce, realizing that he took his marriage and her for granted in his own inflated-ego way (Oscar-winning performance by Adam Driver who also sings well).
I look at the divorce in Marriage Story as an act of therapy for Charlie and Nicole. When they are still married, they don’t use their time to introspect and listen. Nicole is a free-spirited and confused person who seeks new thrill and adventure. She has hard time communicating clearly what she wants. She is a fantastic actress who followed on the footsteps of her family. And when she eventually becomes an Emmy-nominated director it’s because she has seen Charlie doing that. Nicole reclaims back her voice, but in a way realizing that she could have done that before they legalize the divorce. She tries to talk to Charlie on why she wants to move back to LA. But, do Charlie listens? He certainly does not.
A self-absorbed, hardworking man, Charlie is a genius with narcissistic issue. He knows what he wanted and is competitive. He is a hotshot director who gets everything he wanted. He adores his wife, stating she is his favourite actress in the opening credit, but criticizes her acting and never consider her feelings as he legitly thinks Nicole also wanted the same thing. He undermines her demands and shrugs it off. There’s a hint of misogyny in Charlie, or is that what self-absorbed people do? It’s scary and funny at the same time that when two individual co-habitate, one looses their voice and the other’s gets stronger. As Charlie struggles to find a divorce lawyer, finding a place in LA to ensure he gets half the custody for his son, he begins to realize what he has done. But, his ego is too inflated that when Nicole tries to explain her points, he calls her nasty stuff and confesses that he hates her. Does he mean it? Of course not, he breaks down, cry and apologizes over and over.
I, the audience
After the film, I asked a friend about what he thinks and he said that Charlie is a toxic partner and at first I agree. He is not abusive or a bad person, but he undermines and doesn’t listen. He is too wrapped up in his head that he lacked being empathetic. While, I agree that Charlie could have done better in the marriage, but after the discussion, I realized it isn’t that simple. Perhaps, I didn’t like Charlie in the beginning because I didn’t find him relateable, but then it hit me like a brick that once before I had behaved like Charlie who didn’t pay enough attention to his partner and even undermined. It didn’t happen consciously, of course, but our demons get the best of us in a relationship.
While it’s easier to be sympathetic towards Nicole, her character has some flaws that I recognized all too well. I do tend not to communicate directly about what I wanted from someone and got carried away too easily. I would realized this is not what I wanted and bailed (as Nicole did). Again, it shows that neither of them are “perfect” and their divorce isn’t as black or white as it seemed. It’s hard not to cheer for Nicole in the end of the film and feel pity for Charlie – he fucked up and she got smarter, but their affection remains the same.
The bittersweet “what ifs” and “if only” were cleverly directed and written by Noah Baumbach and as I hope you will get out from this long review, it’s also a testament to how brilliant Marriage Story actually is. Some will say the film is about the ugly side of a divorce, but for me it goes beyond being married. It’s about not behaving your best in a relationship, not thinking or communicating clearly, not knowing yourself well enough and being empathetic enough, taking things for granted and saying things you could never take back. At its core, it’s a film about life and being a human. Because being human, like a marriage, itself is complex. And when it comes to divorce, as quoted in the film, “It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore”.
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