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‘Marriage Story’ examines the judicial arbitration of love

Noah Baumbach takes on matrimony’s bitter epilogue in newest domestic drama

In his characteristic imitation of the mumblecore aesthetic, director Noah Baumbach tackles the transformation of love in his most recent project, “Marriage Story,” released on Netflix in December.

The project is reflective and semi-autobiographical for Baumbach, recalling similar domestic meditations in his earlier films “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.” The director returns to this subject in “Marriage Story,” exploring the personal matters that become judicially exposed through the process of divorce — familiar territory for Baumbach, considering his 2013 separation from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

How can a divorce rooted in the slow waning of love — rather than a fracturing betrayal — be arbitrated legally?

“Marriage Story” explores this question. In an interview with Esquire, Baumbach echoed the forced hostility he found inherent to divorce: “When you’re in (a divorce), it absolutely takes over your life,” he said. “When it’s over, you don’t want to hear from it. … The system is designed, in a way, to pit you against each other.” It is through this lived experience that Baumbach is able to construct a narrative of candor, brutality and care in “Marriage Story.”

The film opens with indie New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) introducing his actress-turned-wife Nicole (Scarlett Johannson) through a nearly-saccharine profession of love: “She always says when she doesn’t know something or hasn’t read a book or seen a film or a play, whereas I fake it, or say something like, ‘I haven’t seen it in a while.’” He flatters her with a simultaneous nuance and affectedness; Nicole mirrors Charlie’s observations with her equally mawkish compliments in a sultry yet maternal voice.

This gooey image of marriage is soon shattered: The viewer is made aware that these declarations of love are an exercise completed in couples therapy in an attempt to mediate a divorce. Charlie and Nicole seek an amicable separation out of love for their child, Henry (Azhy Robertson), but also due to the length of their marriage.

But their cordial approach is put under duress as legal processes take over and courtroom arguments centering upon their designation as a Los Angeles or New York family intensify. Charlie accredits Nicole’s successes to his directorship, and she accredits his success to her theatrical contributions to his shows.   

Driver and Johannson offer understated, emotionally resonant performances, oscillating between inflamed moments of resentment and blips of lingering care. The subtlety of their acting persists throughout the film — it is the plainness of Baumbach’s project that defines its essence. We feel for these people who still feel for one another, even as their original love is forced through the judiciary meat grinder.

The brutality of the divorce process is communicated through a tactful performance from Laura Dern, who plays Nora, Nicole’s powerful Los Angeles lawyer. Dern’s character introduces an interesting dynamic within Baumbach’s film, one in which gender performativity permeates the framework of both public and domestic spheres.

In a meeting with Nicole, Nora paces around her tastefully decorated office in a colorful blazer and red heels. She exudes confidence, but she’s never grandiose. “We can accept an imperfect dad. Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was only invented like thirty years ago,” Nora explains to Nicole.

As she speaks, Nora removes her blazer — shedding her professional facade to make herself accessible. “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,” she continues, convincing Nicole to open up to her. While coaching Nicole in the ways in which the court will vilify her non-motherly traits, Nora employs her femininity in dress. She understands how her physical gender expressiveness communicates and even dictates her professional success. As a savvy female divorce lawyer, Dern’s Nora has become masterful in her navigation of domestic and professional spheres.

Thus, Baumbach navigates the conversations between domestic and professional, personal and judicial, through the lens of not only the divorcing couple but also the lawyers who help to facilitate that separation process. Baumbach subtly braids these exposés to coax the audience to unconsciously reflect on the nature of governmentally officiated declarations of love and non-love.

Despite, or perhaps because of its understated style, “Marriage Story” was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score, and Best Original Screenplay. High expectations follow after its success at the Golden Globes earlier this month, particularly after Dern’s performance secured the award for Best Supporting Actress in Any Motion Picture.


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