Programme Notes: Marriage Story

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Noah Baumbach, as is the case with many writer-directors, likes to mine his own life for material. His latest film seems particularly close to the bone. It concerns the dissolving marriage between Charlie (Adam Driver), a celebrated director of avant-garde theatre, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actor who gave up a Hollywood career to be the lynchpin of Charlie’s repertory group. The pair have a young son (Azhy Robertson), whom they both adore. Marriage Story appears to mirror Baumbach’s own divorce to Hollywood actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he collaborated with on Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010), and with whom he has a young son.

This isn’t Baumbach’s first time at the divorce movie rodeo. His third feature, the bittersweet comedy The Squid and the Whale (2005), was based on the acrimonious breakup between Baumbach’s parents, the writers Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown, as told from the point-of-view of the couple’s children. Baumbach was so close to the material that he dressed Jeff Daniels, the actor playing the Jonathan Baumbach avatar, in his old man’s cast-offs. ‘I hardly had time to sit back and think how weird it was to be directing a man who was wearing my father's old clothes,’ Baumbach said in 2006[1].

As well as drawing on his own divorce and his childhood experience of his parents’ split, Marriage Story also sees Baumbach pick the brains of the people around him who’ve been through caustic breakups. ‘It gave me a real opportunity to talk to friends,’ he’s said. ‘I mean, so many people have gone through this experience, and it’s not spoken about a lot.’[2] The resulting film has been warmly embraced since its premiere at Venice Film Festival. Particularly rapturous was LA Times’ Justin Chang, who called Marriage Story ‘an emotionally lacerating experience, a nearly flawless elegy for a beautifully flawed couple, a broken-family classic…'[3]

Followers of Baumbach’s work will recognise a distinct development in style and tone from The Squid and the Whale to Marriage Story. The former, as with subsequent Baumbach works like While We Were Young (2014) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), moves at a clip, taking the form of a chain of brisk scenes that usually end on a tart gag at the expense of its self-involved characters. A mellowing of Baumbach’s acidic flavour was detectible in the joyous Frances Ha (2012), which traded in the same comedy of awkwardness, but instead of curl, your toes were encouraged to tap along with its endearing title character. Mistress America (2015), meanwhile, saw Baumbach experimenting with longer scenes, such as the extended setpiece set in a grand home in Connecticut that plays like a French farce.

Marriage Story has all the pain and awkwardness of The Squid and the Whale, but rather than a series of jagged short scenes, the new work has a symphonic quality, the tempo modulating to the rhythm of its characters. For example, when Nicole’s disappointments at her failing relationship come cascading out during a meeting with her lawyer (Laura Dern), Baumbach lets the scene play as one long take, an extended monologue centred on Johansson. 

Divorce has made for a surprisingly fruitful subject for filmmakers over the years. The chaos of a marriage crumbling has been mined for comic potential in many a screwball comedy, from The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Awful Truth (1937) to more modern variants like The Break-Up (2006) and Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). It’s been the existential fuel in Woody Allen’s caustic Husbands and Wives (1992) and Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing Scenes from a Marriage (1973), another great movie about divorce with marriage in the title.

The film that Marriage Story has been compared to most often is Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). There are overlaps between the two films, but to my eyes the similarities are more formal than thematic. When I spoke to Baumbach in 2015, we discussed how he was one of the last American auteurs working in the mode of the kind of mid-budget films – like Kramer vs. Kramer – that flourished in American cinema of the 70s and 80s. ‘When I was an adolescent, people like James L Brooks and Mike Nichols and Sidney Pollack were making Broadcast News and Working Girl and Tootsie,’ Baumbach said. ‘Those films were meaningful to me when I was first starting to discover movies beyond kids’ movies. They’re really adult comedies, which were character-based and very funny; they could be broad but could also be serious. I wanted to do my version of that.’[4]

Those films of the 70s and 80s that Baumbach so admired also have in common with Marriage Story powerhouse performances by true movie stars in the old sense. ‘Johansson and Driver give the picture its weight,’ notes Ryan Gilbey in his New Statesman review.[5] This is Johansson’s first performance in a Baumbach film, but Driver’s fourth. It’s proving a rich collaboration for both director and actor. ‘This started with a conversation that Noah and I had years ago,’ Driver has said of Marriage Story. ‘That's what working with Noah feels like. It's an ongoing conversation that starts at a dinner and works its way on to a film set.’[6]

Jamie Dunn 
Film Editor, The Skinny
November 2019

[1] John Preston, My parents and other enemies, The Telegraph, 02 Apr 2006

[2] Eric Kohn, Noah Baumbach interview, IndieWire, 24 Jul 2019

[3] Justin Chang, Marriage Story review, LA Times, 5 Nov 2019

[4] Jamie Dunn, Noah Baumbach interview, The Skinny. 30 Mar 2015

[5] Ryan Gilbey, Marriage Story review, New Statesman, 13 Nov 2019

[6] Jamie Dunn, Adam Driver interview, The Skinny, 30 Oct 2019

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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