Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (streaming on Netflix) begins with Charlie and Nicole enlisting their dependence on each other, reminding us why they are married. The details are personal — “she (Nicole) is amazing at opening jars because of her strong arms”; funny — “Charlie eats like he is trying to get it over with and like they will not be enough food for everyone”; reassuring — “he is incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order”, accompanied by a playful montage of their shared moments. The words could have been quiet reflections read out to a group of friends, celebrating what they have. But jotted down (quite literally) for a counsellor entrusted with the task to make the cessation of ties less bitter, they eulogise what they had. The commencement of Marriage Story then marks the demise of their relationship. This constant interplay of an ending and a beginning, where they masquerade as the other, occurs throughout the film. Baumbach uses it, plays with it even to compose a compassionate epilogue which closely resembles a hopeful prologue.
Nicole and Charlie (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) know how they want to split: amicably, as friends. They had not met as much as they had chanced upon each other. An aspiring but disillusioned actor from LA, she had seen his play at New York, noticed his gaze fixed on her. She could not leave. His towering genius overwhelmed her, his vision made her see herself more clearly. He directed and she let him keep a check, even calibrate her emotions. Many years passed since then. They found a small theatre group, had a child. Both made Charlie content, excited. We do not see but hear about it. What we are given to witness is their separation. They hesitate to involve lawyers, they do not want to fight bitterly and debase what they had. They want to terminate the marriage before it collapses. They want to end things before they start ending. Charlie and Nicole, the director and the actor, so familiar with the presence of an audience, will to craft an ending for themselves without spilling any blood. It is almost like, being denied of showcasing their opening act, they want to orchestrate a memorable finale that will lend dignity to the humiliating process of a heartbreak. Even as they bow out, they want to be performers and not be like those they perform for.
This arrangement gets unsettled when Nicole, the actor, being offered a role in a series in LA, moves out of the tutelage of her director. She decides for herself and seeks a lawyer, inadvertently pushing her husband to find one. It is here when standing at the final stage of being terminated, the alliance starts collapsing and the legal advisors, entrusted with the task of completing the process of parting, become those initiating it. Interacting with their lawyers, examining what they threaten to lose, Nicole and Charlie realise what they had and traversing through the dehumanising divorce procedural, they are finally humanised. Baumbach gently underlines this when sitting at the divorce lawyer’s office Nicole reveals and realises how Charlie’s brilliance did not free but fettered her, how the space she occupied in the companionship was not given but allocated to her (“I never really came alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness”). She was his pupil, not his partner. With every consultation with a lawyer, Charlie transitions from anticipating what his wife would do to apprehending what she can. He is stupefied on seeing the divorce papers, is upset when told by her lawyer he could lose custody of their child if he does not respond on time, and struggles with disbelief when Nicole tells him she had read his emails and knows he cheated on her (“How do you even know how to do something like that?”). Her assertion of will is not perceived as betrayal but rebellion by him.
The quiet disintegration of their marriage is devastatingly complete when they meet behind closed doors without the assistance of their lawyers. They are shocked to see who they have become, attempt to put a stop to it but end up revealing who they really are with unconcealed honesty. The unrestrained and hurtful confrontation — “I felt repulsed when you touched me”, “I’d hope you’d get an illness, and then hit by a car and die” — jabs into their marriage, smearing the room with the metaphorical blood they did not want to spill before. The heightened theatricality of the scene suggests they are still performing, but for once they are the actors and the audience. With no one to appreciate or criticise, they finally speak to — not at — each other. Their lived-in familiarity reveals itself most intensely when they deliberately choose words they know will hurt. Unlike the letters at the outset, these they had saved for themselves and amid hurling accusations at their partners for failing, they silently acknowledge having failed the marriage. They seek forgiveness and are forgiven. It is here when they finally bow out.
Marriage Story concludes with the fulfillment of the wish it had begun with. Nicole and Charlie part cordially, almost as friends. But the lasting image is not that of reconciliation of a husband and a wife but of readjustment of two people meeting and deciding to meet again as family. Baumbach does not reconstruct a marriage but deconstructs it and lets it destruct itself to smithereens. He then gathers the broken pieces to put to shape a relationship that does not require the adhesive of legality to stay together. This becomes his way of demonstrating that you can foresee an end but not necessarily the ending. That it is not possible for two people to birth another relationship without adequately witnessing and mourning the denouement of one. That, sometimes, it becomes imperative to be estranged to not become strangers.
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