Saturday, November 30, 2019

Marriage Story

Adam Driver (Charlie), Scarlett Johansson (Nicole), Azhy Robertson (their son Henry).

Marriage Story / Marriage Story.
    US ©  2019 Netflix. PC: Heyday Films, Netflix. P: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman.
    D+SC: Noah Baumbach. Cin: Robbie Ryan – negative: 35 mm – master: digital intermediate 4K – release: 35 mm, D-Cinema. PD: Jade Healy. AD: Andrew Hull, Joshua Petersen. Set dec: Lizzie Boyle, Nicki Ritchie, Adam Willis. Cost: Mark Bridges. Makeup: Deborah La Mia Denaver. Hair: Barbara Olvera. M: Randy Newman.  Songs: Stephen Sondheim, from Company (1970):
– "You Could Drive a Person Crazy", perf. Julie Hagerty, Scarlett Johansson, Merritt Weaver.
– "Being Alive" perf. Adam Driver.
S: Christopher Scarabosio. ED: Jennifer Lame. Casting: Douglas Aibel, Helena Holmes, Francine Maisler. Cast from Wikipedia:
    Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber
    Adam Driver as Charlie Barber
    Laura Dern as Nora Fanshaw
    Alan Alda as Bert Spitz
    Ray Liotta as Jay Marotta
    Azhy Robertson as Henry Barber
    Julie Hagerty as Sandra
    Merritt Wever as Cassie
    Mark O'Brien as Carter
    Matthew Shear as Terry
    Brooke Bloom as Mary Ann
    Kyle Bornheimer as Ted
    Mickey Sumner as Beth
    Wallace Shawn as Frank
    Martha Kelly as The Evaluator
Loc: New York City, Los Angeles.
Festival premiere: 29 Aug 2019 Venice Film Festival.
US premiere (limited): 6 Nov 2019.
Netflix release: 6 Dec 2019.
    Finnish premiere (limited): 29 Nov 2019, released by Scanbox with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Meri Myrskysaari / Bengt-Ove Andersson (tbc, the credits flashed by too fast).
    DCP viewed at Kino Engel 2, Helsinki, 30 Nov 2019

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is an excellent family drama with complex performances, witty and humoristic dialogue, and a sense of troubling deep currents.

Marriage Story belongs to a tradition in American cinema that can be tracked back to Vitagraph and Biograph and masters like Griffith, Stahl and Borzage. Around the year 1980 this kind of subject blossomed with Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton) and other intelligent films about relationships and families by Robert Redford, James L. Brooks and Woody Allen.

This autumn Marriage Story seems like a perfect alternative to the much discussed Marvel movies. I love those movies, but too much of the good thing is not always wonderful.

To a Nordic viewer divorce dramas evoke a tradition of our own by Ibsen, Strindberg, Canth, Jotuni and Bergman. They still startle us with a key observation: there is nothing sadder than a marriage inferno.

Much is universal in Marriage Story, but the story is also typically American. It is a New York vs. Los Angeles story.

Everything seems set for an amicable split between Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), the main issue being the custody of their beloved son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Their session with a marriage counselor starts well, but Nicole is not comfortable with the setup.

Having moved to Los Angeles she employs a divorce lawyer – against the original agreement. Nicole picks one of the best, a celebrity lawyer called Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Charlie now has to engage a lawyer, too. Nicole has first visited twelve other top lawyers thereby rendering them ineligible for her husband. Charlie finally picks a conciliatory one called Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), so nice and well-meaning that Charlie is likely to be crushed. Charlie then selects a law shark as fearsome as Nora Fanshaw, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), and the trial turns into a mutual character assassination. Both spouses lose and lawyers win. There is a brutal showdown in Charlie's bare L.A. apartment. On their own Nicole and Charlie finally reach a conciliatory understanding, but it has been reached at a high cost.

"Where there is law there is injustice", wrote Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace *, and one of the themes of Marriage Story is the distortion and manipulation of reality by lawyers. Western philosophy (Plato / Socrates) started as a critique of sophism and rhetorics. Socrates questioned schools of rhetorics where teachers promised to teach you how to win arguments even when you knew nothing about the subject.

For the divorce lawyers knowledge is rough material to be twisted and turned at will, and promises to act in good faith are not meant to be kept. The only focus is money.

There are deeper layers beyond the main plot current. Although the confidential statements of Nicole and Charlie are abused, leaving them psychologically bruised, a fundamental dignity and respect survives.

At the bottom is inequality. In the US the structural issue of inequality between men and women is so deeply rooted that for an European it is sometimes impossible to read relations between sexes in America.

The marriage drama of Nicole and Charlie is not black and white, but Charlie has to wake up to realize that he has not been treating Nicole as an equal partner. To correct the gender imbalance Nicole wants to make the radical change of taking a divorce and moving from East Coast to West Coast.

Marriage Story still carries echoes of A Doll's House.


In Baumbach's direction, the performances are outstanding and the dramatic charge is powerful. Baumbach introduces intriguing imagery.

A prominent image is the mask. There is a recurrent Halloween mask theme. This is a story among professionals in performing arts, and performers of course wear masks. In Nicole's pilot audition she tries on various masks, perhaps tracking helmets.

Another memorable image is the wound. The clueless divorce evaluator (Martha Kelly) gets a demonstration of Charlie's knife trick, but it misses. Charlie wounds himself badly and leaves blood tracks. (Nicole in turn has been rehearsed by Nora to a spotless performance for the evaluator).


Stephen Sondheim songs are prominent. "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" is sung by Nicole's family as a trio. Charlie sings "Being Alive" as a solo. This is a Stephen Sondheim autumn in the cinema. In Joker, "Bring In the Clowns" is prominent on the soundtrack in an interpretation by Frank Sinatra.


Shot on 35 mm, the digital transfer conveys the warm hues of Robbie Ryan's cinematography.


* "Где суд, там и неправда". (Platon Karatayev, War and Peace IV, Chapter 12). More literally this might mean: "Where there is a court, there is untruth".

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