Marriage Story ★★★★

"I didn't belong to myself."

The struggle to split one life into two, not just literally but symbolically, metaphysically. A separation is never just a physical separation, but a spiritual one as well, a loss of one part of yourself and a gain of a new emptiness, one that you will eventually fill with the new you, but one which for now is vacant. But alongside this new emptiness, the part of yourself that you lost never really goes away completely. Your love never completely disappears, even if it doesn't make sense anymore. This is the central emotional dynamic of the film, and it's just a wonderful insight into human nature and the nature of relationships, whether they're ending or beginning. The push and pull of trying to be yourself when you're together, of trying to find yourself when you're apart, and of trying to come to terms with that part of yourself which is not you but which seems to be stuck inside you, immovable, rooted within you forever.

What I didn't expect from Marriage Story is the extent to which it's also a legal drama about two people who live on different sides of the country but both want to have custody of their child. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta push Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver to take each other for all they're worth, to be relentless and vicious to each other in order to get what they want out of the divorce, and my initial reaction to this was no, stop, please, this is not what I signed up for! I just wanted to watch these two beautiful people sit down and talk to each other, or even stand up and yell at each other, I don't care! I just don't want to watch these merciless lawyers force their unkind words into Nicole and Charlie's mouths. This is just manipulative and cruel.

But, then, that's exactly the point, isn't it? This isn't what they wanted either. They wanted to resolve things amicably, but it proved impossible. Charlie wouldn't let Nicole be her own person, wouldn't listen to her when she tried to speak with her own voice, wouldn't let her feed her own aliveness. But now they've lost their agency, they've surrendered to a higher power, and once they got on this roller coaster they couldn't make it stop, and now, somehow, through some impossible geology, it just keeps going down and down and getting worse and worse until they're threatening to take each other's livelihoods, not because it's what they want but because it's what their lawyers think is necessary. The callous system exerts its inhumanity upon these otherwise decent people.

I am exactly the wrong person to review this movie. I'm just so, so dry; all I want to do is analyze theme—and that's fine, that's my brand, that's my strength, and I'm okay with it—but while this movie obviously offers an abundance of content for semiotic analysis, it also has something more, some real, ineffable understanding of the human condition, and I just can't do justice to that kind of genuine emotionalism. It manages to open on the "What I love about Nicole/Charlie" bits from the trailer, which is essentially expository character description, and it gets away with it because the characters and the emotions they go through are so genuine and specific and true.

So here's what I've got for you. This movie's all about independence and finding your truest self and separating your identity from your partner's, belonging to yourself and having your own voice and feeding your own aliveness, and one of my biggest personal weaknesses in my own life is giving up my independence. Alice paints this very faithful picture of me during our first days living together seven years ago: we would wake up, and I would get on my computer and write or play games, when her expectation was that we would be hanging out, spending time together, and my expectation was that we would go on living the way we had been before, now simply doing it in the same physical space. I still wanted to be independent even in new, codependent living conditions.

To this day I still take a lot of personal independent time: to pick the most obvious, relevant example, I go to the movie theater alone once a week (well, my friend Dan has started joining me, which is much more pleasant than I expected), and while Alice is always invited, she never comes, at least in part because she knows that I'm looking for some small amount of escape. And she knows that I want this escape not because I don't love her; she has the wisdom and the understanding and the strength to not let this reflect on herself or on my feelings for her, and I love her immeasurably for that. She knows (like Charlie doesn't—you thought I wasn't going to connect this back to the movie, didn't you?) that even when you're with someone, you have to also be yourself. Nicole is never allowed her independence.

So anyway, that's what I relate to. What I'm fortunate enough to not yet have any personal experience with, but what the movie seems to also really nail, is the complex way in which this togetherness, this knowing another person and this being there for them and compensating for their weaknesses, this all stretches beyond your togetherness into your separation, and it's hard to know what to do with these impossible feelings when you're apart. You still cut their hair, you still tie their shoes. And it's not merely accidental, merely habitual. You still really mean it too, even if you don't want to, even if it doesn't make sense anymore.

2019 ranked

Alright, now it's time to really embarrass myself:

What I love about Alice

She's smart. This is actually one of the things that I first fell in love with about her—we met in college, and she was just casually studying neuroscience. She's not literally a brain surgeon, but she could be.

She's neat and organized, and not in a compulsive, serial-killer way—she still has a massive pile of dirty laundry in the corner of the bedroom like any normal 20-something person, she just puts things away when she's done with them, and somehow she always knows where everything is, even if it's my wallet and she didn't even see me put it down in the bathroom after I got home.

She's generous. She always brings a housewarming gift whenever we visit someone, even if they've been living in that house for five years now and we come over every other week. She's always more concerned about whether everyone else is having a good time than about herself, even if it's literally her wedding and everybody is there just to celebrate her.

She's full of joy. I always know when she's watching one of her favorite shows because I can hear her giggling from the other room, as if her insides are full of bubbles and she just needs to open her mouth to let them out.

She is tender and compassionate. She always listens when I'm having a hard time and knows how to make me feel better, whether I'm struggling with my writing or my work or I'm just losing too many times in a row at my latest video game. She knows how to make me feel safe in my vulnerability, and how to help me open up when I'm being irrational or defensive.

She's tough. She faced her father's passing with courage, and she learned to live again without his physical presence but with his spirit always in her heart.

She's silly. She knows just how to brighten my day when I'm in the dumps. She makes up her own words for everything; she has her own language, her own world, and she's wonderful enough to allow me to be part of it. She lets me join her in her aliveness.

She's the best, and I know I will always love her from now until forever.

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