Marriage Story ★★★★½

With evocative and gradual impact, Marriage Story (2019) pulls its audience into the throes of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) turbulent divorce, although the narrative itself begins rather complexly. Voice-over monologues occupy the first several minutes, wherein Charlie and then Nicole list their admiration for each other: their parenting skills, their eccentricities, etc. However, we discover that these professions of love are not framed confessionals abstracted from the narrative, nor transcendent of the film by way of Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) but rather, the contents of a pre-divorce exercise proposed by their mediator in order to soften their eventual resentments. As such, we are first introduced to Nichole and Charlie quite symbolically, with the reticent legal beginnings of their marriage’s end, and with the erasure of authentic admiration. Herein lies a process of undoing, of that which seems initially romantic as reduced down to a clinical exercise. And it is this first sequence of romance, and then its undoing, that captures the crux of the film’s tonality. That is, alongside the overarching narrative of complex love and detachment lies a sense of diametric opposition and its inevitable dislocation.

In other words, Marriage Story cannot be reduced down to its titular simplicity. Rather, it journeys two narratives in simultaneity; the storyline itself which rather mechanically operates along the rhythms of an official, legal process of divorce, and then as a visual story, one which carves out the film’s meaning beyond inscriptions of chequebooks and contracts and the geographies of a coast-to-coast separation; a story which emerges from the empty rooms of a disintegrating family home and quiet moments of longing and frustrated regret, all of which build upon each other as distinctive layers and elevate the film to mastery.

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