When a couple is to be found ticking off a laundry-list of what they ‘liked’ most about each other, it is red flags time. In Noah Baumbach’s deeply affecting Marriage Story, Charlie and Nicole are living through a fractious present, trying very hard for civility as they negotiate the debris of a failed marriage, which has produced a son, some great memories, and endless recriminations.
Baumbach has been exceptionally astute in mining uncomfortable truths, and those unspoken in-between moments between crests and troughs (The Squid and The Whale, Frances Ha, While We’re Young). His parents divorced when he was young, and some of that turmoil was reflected in his debut The Squid and The Whale. He raises the bar higher with Marriage Story, the name itself so generic as to be faintly funny, but you also know why he’s chosen it. Some marriages stutter, keel over, recover; some go into a state of perpetual remission; others are destined to die. It is the nature of the beast, and Baumbach records it with devastating, unflinching honesty.
And oh, how deliciously beastly both Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are as they fight to retain custody of their son, and their selves. Both have lawyers who love nothing better than a dirty fight. Past sexual transgressions, shared bank accounts, the amount of alcoholic consumption—nothing is off the table as Laura Dern, terrific in her take-no-prisoners’ attitude, and the shark-like Ray Liotta, battle on behalf of the couple who are carried along as the disintegration rapidly moves towards dissolution.
Even with Baumbach’s admirable ability to observe without offering judgement, it is easy for a film like this to go wrong. To show a marriage going off the rails can be the most banal thing in the world, but the writing is sharp and smart, and in many places we see the little things that make a couple that special unit: at one point, in a roomful of people making lunch choices from a menu, and with Charlie dithering, Nicole unerringly chooses the one dish her husband, soon-to-be-ex, will like. She knows, and he knows. And that’s a moment.
This film will resonate most with couples who have done the time and are aware just how things can unravel, how joy can leach out, and anger and frustration can become permanent companions. What’s nice is that neither Driver nor Johansson ask for sympathy (though he can never quite understands just why being self-absorbed can become the main deal-breaker), and that Johansson doesn’t play the whiny, self-pitying wife. Both pitch in beautifully calibrated performances that remind us just how easy it is for a marriage to go wrong, and how hard it is to fix it. Sometimes what won’t get fixed is broken irretrievably.
I won’t be surprised if the talent from this bittersweet Netflix original will be reading out acceptance speeches at glittering awards nights. The battle between studio-led movies and films that are produced by OTT platforms is being fought quite visibly at TIFF: the studio- produced films are being screened at the main venue of Scotiabank multiplex; films from Netflix and Amazon are showing at the neighbouring Bell Light box theatres. Will this divorce end in a re-union? There are no clear answers to this thorny issue, not just yet: this promises to be a long, hard fight.
Quite often, to battle mid-festival fatigue, you want to get away from high-minded cinema for something fun. Knives Out by Rian Johnson (who last directed The Last Jedi), is just the antidote for grimness: it is a throwback to the locked-room whodunits that used to be such a detective story staple. Think of Knives Out as a gussied-up latter-day Agatha Christie mystery, with Daniel Craig playing a sort of Hercules Poirot (minus the moustache) who shows up to solve a murder.
Part of the appeal of Knives Out is the setting. A grand old manor surrounded by paddocks and forests is seething with hidden resentments and secrets. The wealthy owner (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study. Who is the killer? Could it be any of his middle-aged sons and daughters (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans), all of whom were dependent on him? Or his faithful companion and nurse (Ana De Armas)?
Johnson bungs in some modern racism-cum-classcism in the way the family treats the young companion: they never remember her nationality and patronize her terribly all the time. But the idea of the film really is have a blast in giving us an old-fashioned murder mystery solved in the most old-fashioned way: through the use of the old grey cells. Poirot would approve.