Together, alone: Marriage Story
Marriage Story has an unusual beginning if one is to consider the function this scene has to play in the expository chapter of the film. You could call the opening scenes of the film What do I like about Nicole / Charlie?, the two main characters of this matrimonial narrative – Charlie (splendidly acted by Adam Driver) and Nicole (in a performance by Scarlett Johansson). This beginning is, strictly in terms of narrative devices, a sort of Swiss Army Knife, because it fulfills multiple functions at the same time. It’s the exposition of the film’s narrative, the episode which offers the opportunity to learn more about the characters, about the world in which they live in and, especially, about the „world” and intimacy of Charlie and Nicole. By counting down the things that the two love about each other and by editing together little sequences in which all of those things are illustrated, the audience gains access to the private language which any long-term couple creates for itself and which becomes the trademark of their universe. As remains to be seen throughout the narrative’s runtime is that this opening sequence works at various levels of the film’s narrative construction, being one of the technical components of a narrative counterpoint, which offers a contrast to present-time moments, in which the relationship between the two has deteriorated. Additionally, without giving away any useless spoilers, links to this scene are reestablished towards the ending of the movie, thus having the ability to show that, beyond all the trials and tribulations of their break-up, the two of them truly loved each other and they continue to have feelings (albeit, residual ones) which derive from their love story.
I’ve counted down just a few of the functions which the episode that opens Baumbach’s film fulfills, and this countdown is just an attempt at offering a possible spectator a little part of the richness and narrative complexity of this film. Marriage Story has been constantly compared to Kramer vs. Kramer, however, its structure and dramaturgical options remind of a completely different model, away from the Hollywood-type construction, i.e. the one which is seen in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson). While working on Marriage Story, Baumbach and his director of photography, Robbie Ryan, seem to have looked for inspiration from the legendary duo, Ingmar Bergman-Sven Nykvist. Baumbach cited this film as a source of inspiration for the way in which they considered close-up shots and for the way in which the actors’ visages are related by means of imagistic dramaturgy. I’d say that Marriage Story’s screenwriting role models are Scenes from a Marriage and Persona, considering the treatment that the director and DOP apply to the actors’ faces (the visage as an affective and intensive territory of cinema).
In contrast to Kramer vs. Kramer, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s film is and isn’t the story of a divorce. The story of a break-up is indeed presented, but the way in which this entire story is constructed, starting from certain narrative tactics which offer information on the characters and the couple, to the way in which an entire visual device is put into motion to underline the effects that their breakup has on the family. All of this makes Marriage Story a rare appearance even for the Netflix era: a Hollywood film in which dramaturgical elements of auteurist filmmaking sneak in, a characteristic which qualified the film for the Oscar for Best Film.
Strictly in terms of minimal requirements needed to start a discussion, I’ll sum up the film’s plot: Charlie and Nicole, a couple that isn’t at all unusual, meaning an actress and a director who share a loving relationship, are breaking up. However, they are determined to make their breakup as amiable as possible, a divorce that shouldn’t implicate lawyers and violent attacks amongst the former spouses. The entire dramaturgical and narrative construction of the film is constructed on the basis of the two’s failure to fulfill this goal, while always keeping within the subtext of the film the contrast between what their relationship used to be during their marriage, and what it became after lawyers and various people who can profit over their breakup enter the game, ending up in a position to control the two people’s lives.
First of all, I would like to illustrate Baumbach’s dramaturgical strategy by describing a very short sequence. It’s a scene that takes place at the metro station after they leave the afterparty for a theatre play (which I believe is Electra) at the beginning of the movie. Nicole leaves the party earlier, angry that Charlie seems to have an intimate conversation with his directing assistant (with whom, we find out later on, he had had an affair). The state of tension between the two is magnificently portrayed in the scene which takes place at the subway. First of all, though its usage of composition and editing which breaks the conventional rules of continuity, not aligning the gazes of their eyes, but also by setting the characters in a very isolated frame, in which the two-thirds typical Hollywood framing method isn’t oftentimes used. Because keeping the time-space continuity in this scene wouldn’t have shown the emotional disconnect in their relationship. Nothing out of the ordinary until here.
Let’s take a more complex sequence into consideration. No, I’m not referring to the already-famous scene of their violent argument, which is rather more of an acting feat than a directorial or cinematic one. I’d say that a much more important sequence is the one that takes place right before, at the courtroom. The dominant position in this sequence is occupied by Nicole’s lawyer (performed by Laura Dern) and Charlie’s lawyer (acted by Ray Liotta). Apparently, the scene is about the confrontation between the lawyers, who are trying to gain as many advantages as they can for the parties that they’re representing. However, we only see the judge towards the end of the sequence. The perspective that is the film takes isn’t, in fact, the one of the lawyers’ confrontation, but that of an immersion into Charlie and Nicole’s subjectivities, as the divorce terms are being negotiated. We see the actors seated in a row, looking at each other sideways. The camera never places the lawyers occupying the whole frame, but rather, the images of Charlie and Nicole are kept in the depth of field, even if they are slightly out of focus. The true function of the scene is to register their non-verbal reactions. The lawyers as the one doing the talking right now, Charlie and Nicole have gone silent, as if they had fully lost control over their own lives. The effect that is produced is remarkable: what is obtained is a suggestion that there still remains a connection between the two, which is visible even when everything in that scene conspires to break it apart. In fact, this is one of the general attributes of Baumnach’s attitude towards the story: the way of still being together while being alone at the same time, this presence of love in every scene, even in those in which they seem to hate each other at the utmost intensity. This duality is present throughout the entire run of the film as is especially there in the most violent scene, Charlie and Nicole’s confrontation, which takes place immediately after this trial scene, and upon which I won’t comment.
The last scene that I would like to mention takes place right before the one set at the courthouse, and it relates to the relationship between the two parents with their son. I’m thinking about that specific episode in which Nicole asks Charlie to repair the electric gate of her new home. „The rules” of their break-up are suspended when Nicole, as she frequently used to do, gives a haircut to Charlie. Yet these rules are reaffirmed once he leaves through a cinematic procedure that is as simple as it is efficient in its means of communication. That is – the door shutting behind Charlie and the way this action is edited, in a way which underlines the separation of the two as the door closes shut, literally breaking their links as lovers and parents.
I could go into a frame by frame analysis of Baumbach’s film since I have found innumerable merits to each and every sequence. A collaboration between an actor which the dramatic potential of Adam Driver and a director with the creative resources of Noah Baumbach are a witness for what I would call a New Hollywood, the Hollywood that rises against franchises such as the Marvel Universe and that imposes a certain tendency upon post-Netflix American cinema: to import auteur film conventions into a production system that has always worked against auteurs.
Orson Welles is watching us from somewhere above, and he’s smiling bitterly.