‘Marriage Story’ is a realistic look at an all too common topic

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, now in limited release, Marriage Story will be available for streaming December 6.  The Netflix original movie is gathering a lot of buzz as one of the front runners for Oscar noms. I saw it first at TIFF, now again in the theatre, trying to confirm my initial feelings about the film.

Directed by Noah Baumbach with a stellar cast, the title would be more apt if it’s called ‘Divorce Story’, for the film is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber going through the separation and divorce process, culminating with the final custody case of their 8 year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Marriage Story
Scene from Marriage Story with Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, and Scarlett Johansson. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Nicole is an aspiring film actor in LA before following avant-garde theatre director Charlie to NYC to become a stage actor with his company, his muse, and later, his wife and the mother of his child Henry. Exactly, the emphasis on the possessive ‘his’, and hence, the reason for Nicole’s discontent. 

At this point in her marriage, Nicole finds herself oddly unhappy, although she doesn’t show it that much. Looks like Charlie has everything going for him. Nicole describes it: he’s alive while she’s in a coma. As he becomes more and more successful, “I got smaller,” she laments. Charlie has distinguished himself as a theatre artist and akin to his professionalism, is honest in his critique of Nicole’s acting. One time after a performance, he takes out his notes, “I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.”

So, with the offer to star in a new TV series, Nicole jumps at the opportunity and goes back to LA, with Henry in tow. 

The film starts off with a voiceover as we hear Charlie and Nicole read out something they’ve written on what they love about each other. A marriage counsellor is trying to lead them down memory lane to revive their relationship, to think on why they got married in the first place. But looks like they’ve passed this point. They want to stroll down the divorce lane, casually, no lawyers. Soon they find there’s no gentle way to go about this.

Humor comes as situational irony. Here’s one of those scenes. In her mother’s kitchen in LA, Nicole is figuring out how and who to serve Charlie with the divorce papers, documents in a brown legal envelop placed on the kitchen counter. Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty) loves Charlie and isn’t cool with the task. The duty falls on sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). The three nervously prepares the scene quickly just before Charlie enters, arriving from NY and bursting with excitement of winning a MacArthur Fellowship and is spontaneously met by good cheers from all, just might not be the right mood to serve any legal papers.

Marriage and family relationships have long been Baumbach’s subject matter. His semi-autobiographical, breakout work The Squid and the Whale (2005) is edgy and personal. Through the eyes of the sons, teenager Walt and his 12 year-old brother witness the nasty demolition of their literary parents’ marriage. Walt finds out at the end of the film that the model he’d seen as a child at the Natural History Museum of a sperm whale swallowing up a giant squid is a visual metaphor of his parents’ relationship. That film is impressionable as it shows not only a marriage breakdown but the emotional and psychological damage of their sons. A dark comedy full of fresh takes on a common subject matter, with Baumbach’s signature quirkiness and eccentric characterization.

In Marriage Story, however, Baumbach doesn’t need a metaphor as he tells his story in stark realism with a low-risk, conventional approach. This is probably the director’s least quirky and idiosyncratic feature in his oeuvre. His vivid depiction of the love/hate ambivalence between Charlie and Nicole is nuanced and vivid. Heavy on dialogues, reminiscence of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974), but Marriage Story is more an updated version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) exactly 40 years ago. 

Love lingers. Even though they are separated as far as the east coast is from the west, every time Charlie visits Nicole and Henry in LA, tenderness surfaces readily. Just begs the question though, as the counsellor wants them to think about why they got married in the first place, looks like they now need to ponder on why they want a divorce.

Reality is, our legal system is adversarial. Nicole’s aggressive lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) tells her, “the system rewards bad behavior.” The harder you stab, the more likely you’ll win. They’re charged to combat each other, and when it comes to digging up dirty laundry in favor of their case, the lawyers leave no stone unturned. This is something both Charlie and Nicole don’t expect. Instead, they’re pushed into the legal torrents reluctantly. Empathy as expressed from the older, semi-retired lawyer Bert (Alan Alder) means incompetence. Charlie finally has to hire the high-priced legal shark Jay (Ray Liotta), for the stakes are too high.

If Baumbach has sprinkled his newest film with a bit more squid and whale quirks, it will make it more interesting. Surely, the strong cast overall delivers, with Driver and Johansson offering some fine performance. But with such a commonplace subject matter, and so many movies have already done it, what’s amiss is the very quirkiness and eccentricity Baumbach leaves out.

Another consideration is, do we need all the 136 minutes to tell the story of Barber vs. Barber? Maybe not. However, since it’s a Netflix original movie, viewers have total control over how long to sit in front of the small screen to view it; chopping it up into shorter segments is what I predict to be the viewing habits of many. Herein lies the problem with streaming movies from a device, i.e. the trivializing of the experience. But that’s beyond the present discussion. Some day maybe, another post: Theatre vs. Netflix.

So what was I trying to confirm in this second viewing? It’s the reason for my detachment. Twice now, I was an observer of a performance, appreciating the nuances, the humor, but not being drawn in in terms of feelings. Could it be, at times, I find there’s pushing for the emotion?


~ ~ ~ Ripples



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Girl With A Pearl Earring

The Painting (1665)

Girl With A Pearl Earring

Not much is known about this girl looking back at the artist with her soulful glance.  The pearl earring, the focal point of the painting, is obviously incompatible with her humble attire.  Vermeer has captured a mystery open to anyone’s imagination.  But it takes a master storyteller to create a believable and poignant narrative that can move modern readers three hundred some years later.


The Novel (1999)

Vermeer taught me that Less Is More, and I have been practicing that aesthetic principle in my writing ever since.”     — Tracy Chevalier

You can see it coming… it’s almost like reflex that after seeing a Vermeer exhibition I’d go back to the book Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, and re-watch the DVD of the movie based on it.  Well, especially when I didn’t get the chance to see the painting itself in the exhibition.

GWAPE Book CoverIt was this book that first sparked curiosity in me about Vermeer and his works.  Tracy Chevalier has done a superb job in creating out of her imagination the story behind the girl with the pearl earring, within the realistic social and historical contexts.  She has brought to the surface layers of possible subtexts hidden in this seemingly simple portrait.

I’ve appreciated that she has chosen the social segregation and hierarchical class structure of 17th century Delft as the backdrop of her novel.  So, instead of a sweet little tale or melodramatic story,  Chevalier highlights the complex social reality of power relations between servant and master, artist and patron.  She has masterfully created a scenario whereby the social distance between the servant girl, Griet,  and her master Vermeer, is drawn closer by her quiet understanding and appreciation of aesthetics.  With the same sharpness and sensitivity,  Chevalier has also shown how a wealthy patron can exploit art with his despicable, self-serving lust.

Chevalier’s ingenuity tugs at our heartstrings as we see the innocent and powerless being played as pawns,  no more than flies caught in the web of the rich and powerful.  The struggle between survival and artistic freedom is poignantly painted as irreconcilable subjects on the canvas of financial reality.  And fate teases all.  Yet among all these, the natural light that comes from art and beauty silently seeps through, brushing us warmly with a tender glow.

Do try to get hold of the Deluxe Edition.  It includes 9 full-color Vermeer paintings, which are cleverly incorporated into the story by the author.

Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Deluxe Edition, published by PLUME, Penguin Group, 2005, 233 pages.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


The Movie (2003)



Watching the movie Girl With A Pearl Earring is the closest to actually seeing a Vermeer exhibition.  Every frame is like a Vermeer painting with its extensive use of natural light from windows, contrasting the shadows in the interior of the Delft household.  The film was nominated for three Oscars in 2004, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.  In other words, it’s a pleasure to watch… it has to be because dialogues are sparingly used throughout.  Herein lies the strength of acting and the effectiveness of sound and visual communication.

The restrained performance of Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet brings out the reality of the social order of the day.  A servant is not supposed to speak unless spoken to.  And what does a master has to say to an uneducated maid, unless he sees in her the appreciation of art and the clear understanding of aesthetics, of light and shadows, of beauty in the mundane.

Vermeer’s asking Griet to be his assistant and ultimately putting her in one of his works, albeit reluctantly for both, sparks off repugnant reverberation in town, and of course, the fierce jealousy of the painter’s wife Catherine (Essie Davis).  But as flies caught in the web of patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), with debts to pay and a full household of mouths to feed, the artist has to bow to reality, and the even lower-ranked servant has to yield to her fate.

The visuals and music are the key to revealing the internal.  Beautifully shot in Luxembourg to simulate 17th Century Delft, the movie is a work of art in itself.  Colin Firth’s usual reticent persona on film fits him perfectly this time.  His taciturn portrayal of the ambivalent artist betrays the struggles within.  Scarlett Johansson delivers a convincing performance as pure and innocent Griet, and her gradual growth on the path of experience, albeit the book, as usual, depicts the inner turmoil more effectively.

The special feature on the DVD is enjoyable as well, chronicling the making of the movie.  I hope though that a Blu-ray version will come out one of these days, for that will indeed do justice to the cinematography and to the original artist, the master painter Johannes Vermeer himself.

~~~ Ripples

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