I just have to accept that once every decade Noah Baumbach will rip my heart out, eat it in front of me and make me watch. He did it with The Squid And The Whale in 2005, and he does it again in Marriage Story, a study of a dissolving couple whose attempt at an amicable separation becomes quietly, horrifically disastrous.
Squid was based on Baumbach’s own parents’ divorce, and he seems to be doing something similarly semi-autobiographical here. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a respected New York theatre director and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is both a film actor and the daughter of a TV star, just like Baumbach’s former partner Jennifer Jason Leigh.
That’s the foundation, but these characters are their own people; they’ve worked together for a decade, and they have a young son (Juliet, Naked’s Azhy Robertson) whom they’re trying very hard to protect from the fallout of their divorce. But Nicole takes a gig in Los Angeles while Charlie stays behind to work in New York, lawyers get involved, and hasty decisions become emotional hand grenades waiting to explode at the worst possible time.
Driver and Johansson are both remarkable at showing us the separate but mirrored struggles Charlie and Nicole endure as they figure out who they are to each other, and Baumbach captures the tiny, personal horror of understanding that someone you currently loathe will never fully leave your life.
There’s a precision and an empathy in every moment that makes the specific feel universal; Baumbach is also open to the little absurdities in his characters’ worlds, like the way the narcissistic buzz of Charlie’s theatre company in New York mirrors the inane chatter in Nicole’s L.A. sphere. And when things get serious, he sits back and lets his actors do whatever they need to do, and it’s devastating.
Like a lot of Baumbach’s domestic studies, Marriage Story evokes comparisons to Woody Allen’s best work – but I’d argue that Baumbach has long since eclipsed Allen as a filmmaker. Maybe it’s because Allen has calcified over the decades, while Baumbach keeps on growing as an artist. Or maybe it’s simply because Baumbach’s characters aren’t just selfish monsters who excuse their behaviour by pointing out that we live in an amoral and uncaring universe. Baumbach’s characters are good people, or are trying to be; it’s the universe that’s the problem.
This is one of the best movies of the year, and it’s a damn shame most people will see it on Netflix. It needs to be experienced in the dark, with a crowd, all of us sniffling – or holding our breath – together.