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Friday, March 05, 2021

Is happily-ever-after an illusion?

Before Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach explored the damage done by a collapsing marriage in The Squid and the Whale

Written by Shubhra Gupta |
January 24, 2021 6:30:44 am
What makes the older film so interesting is how pared down it is.

Two people falling apart is as natural as two people falling in love. It’s funny how we spend considerable time and emotion in searching for the perfect partner, and consider ourselves lucky when it happens. But we forget that we are changeable creatures. Couples do grow out of each other, and a marriage can and, sadly, does break.

Noah Baumbach’s 2019 Marriage Story, about an actress and a stage director drifting apart, shows us how painful breakdowns can be: the characters played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson were joined at the hip not so long back; now they can’t bear to look at each other. Therapy doesn’t work. Neither do well-meant interventions from friends and family. In an explosive argument, Charlie yells at Nicole that he wishes she would die. And you know, just as they do, that that’s the end. Furious people do say stuff they don’t mean, but something as final as this is hard to dial back from.

Baumbach’s bio states that his life was deeply impacted by his parents’ messy divorce. His 2005 film, The Squid And The Whale, which feels like a younger version of Marriage Story, is showing on MUBI. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play a literary couple who’ve had it with each other. Soon after the film opens, we see them informing their two boys, aged 12 and 16 years (played respectively by Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg), about the split.

What makes the older film so interesting is how pared down it is. Marriage Story has therapists and lawyers jumping in, leading the battle-scarred couple into long-drawn, futile meetings. The Squid And The Whale keeps its focus on the family, making not the slightest attempt to garner our sympathies either for the husband, or the wife. Neither are saints. She is in a relationship with the younger boy’s tennis coach; he is making the moves on a student young enough to be his daughter.
What’s even more interesting is how neither parent tries to hide their affair.

Do they even think of how this will affect the children, already devastated by the separation? Joint custody means that the boys have to learn to split their time between two houses, one well-appointed, the other shabby and disorganised, and two warring individuals. Baumbach injects wry humour into this searing autobiographical movie, and that saves us from recoiling every time the adults do something stupid or immature, leaving the young people to figure thorny things out for themselves.

The film leaves you thinking — is happily-ever-after an illusion? Should we keep going just for the sake of our children, even if it bungs us into a state of permanent misery? What comes through is a universal truth: two people, living in close proximity, are more than capable of creating unending storms in their teacups. Being madly, deeply in love can make you believe that you can’t live without each other. It can also, sometime, somewhere down the road, make you want to kill each other.

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