Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story: not a love story

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, captures you with kindness and leaves you with a broken heart.

As I sit through the first projection of Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johanson and Adam Driver, I could not help but sing Neil Sedaka’s Breaking Up Is Hard to Do in my mind, as the movie perfectly recreates that bittersweet mood filled with nostalgia that characterises the song.

Marriage Story begins with a beautifully edited sequence narrated via voiceover where spouses Charlie and Nicole enumerate the things that they adore about each other; as glimpses of their shabby-chic life colors the screen, the delicate and romantic score created by Randy Newman underlines the familiar ambience, matching the warmth of the scenery.

Soon we discover that these declarations are not part of a spontaneous act of affection: a mediator has asked the pair to write these notes to free their separation from hostility. As Nicole refuses to read her thoughts we understand that the title, which seemly held the promise of a heart-warming story, actually announces a tale on a decaying love where resentment will not be withholden.

Baumbach’s script grasps the blurriness that defines sentiments at the end of a relationship. Inspired by the author’s divorce, the film dialogue does not spare the observer from witnessing two good people at their worst, two characters that scrape all the resentment from the bottom of their hearts and vomit it on each other. 

The whole narration is marked by a question: what went wrong between Charlie and Nicole? Of course along the way we are able to at least rough out the dynamic that led to the collapse of their love, but the author does not point his finger at the causes, since he would rather offer an objective point of view on the fragility of a relationship that, as a living being, keeps on changing and evolving. A liaison that unluckily eventually perishes.

It is a tough piece of work, steeped in pain that feels immediate and real, where moments of levity are followed by moments of superb authenticity. The spectator ends up caring deeply for these well-rounded characters, to a point where emotional participation is inevitable: it can be upsetting to watch at times. Baumbach’s direction is intimate and subtle: the camera follows the actors almost voyeuristically, capturing the – literal and emotional – empty space that separates Charlie and Nicole. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan‘s 35mm photography adds refinement to the director’s point of view without embellishing the performance, as Driver and Johansson’s work on the role is flawless.

From the warmth tones that characterise the beginning of the movie, drama progresses but it never forgets moments of clumsy – sometimes surreal – comedy: the result is a well-balanced story that manages to get a few smiles and a few tears while it reveals you a little thing or two on love.

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