Lots of people tend to think of cinema as a medium that deals chiefly with fantasy and spectacle. Even those films that do centre around real lives focus on those that have been exceptional in some way. If you look at my top ten list of films of the year so far though, alongside tales of superheroes, queens, kids who would be king, evil underground doppelgängers and ageing film stars, there are movies about school kids, families facing bereavement, young people fighting against racism and emotional jealousy. (Okay, there might be a bit of murder in that last one but you know how these things can go.) This art form might mirror life on fewer occasions than others then but possibly more often than you’d think.
Noah Baumbach is a director who has always concentrated on real people in common situations and while his characters can sometimes be a little exaggerated (generally when Greta Gerwig or Ben Stiller are in the film) they always depict genuine and relatable experiences. Marriage Story in particular examines something lots of people have gone though, not marriage but divorce, and does so in a way that feels honest, insightful, heartbreaking and tragic. Even within this though, as in real life, there is love.
This aspect might seem obvious but most films that feature divorce don’t deal with the fact that just because couples can’t stay together it doesn’t mean they don’t both still have strong feelings for one another. If you look at The First Wives Club, The War of the Roses, Sideways, Crazy Stupid Love, Thunder Road, Mrs Doubtfire, When Harry Met Sally, Kramer vs Kramer and Baumbach’s own The Squid and the Whale, you might see one party suffering pain and heartbreak but mutual affection is rarely part of the story.
This isn’t to say things don’t get tough in Marriage Story. The antagonism between the couple slowly builds with him being wounded and ineffectual and her being wounded and passive aggressive, neither of them in a way you would judge them for, until the whole thing explodes in a series of powerful, angry and shouty Oscar clips about an hour and fifteen minutes in as their frustrations with one another escape. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver will undoubtedly both be nominated for Oscars as they are excellent. Throughout all of it though you never lose sight of the fact that much of the pain comes from them both fighting someone they once loved and trusted.
As much as the movie pushes its little sub genre forward, it also feels a little bit old fashioned. Most of the action plays out inside the same six or seven rooms and it is very dialogue and character heavy in a way you don’t see so much any more. There is something in the grain and colours of the film that makes it feel like something less than contemporary too and the performances feel unselfconscious and a tiny bit retro as well. Watching it I started to imagine an alternative reality versions of the film that came out a few years ago starring Carry Fisher and William Hurt or maybe Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
Marriage Story is an impressive film. It isn’t in my top ten simply (and obviously) because there are films I’ve enjoyed a lot more this year but this is certainly one to admire. The authenticity no doubt comes from Baumbach’s own experiences when splitting up with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scarlett Johansson’s two martial breakdowns from Ryan Reynolds and Romain Dauriac and Adam Driver’s memories of his parents breaking up. It is moving but it’s not too sad and I would imagine it could be cathartic for the many people who have been through the same.
Marriage Story is in cinemas and on Netflix now.