• Jessica Moore

Marriage Story: a Masterclass in Visual Storytelling

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 Nicole list their admiration for each other: their parenting skills, their eccentricities, etc. However, it is not long before we discover that these professions of love are not meta-cinematic confessionals abstracted from the narrative, but 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 for each other. Herein lies a process of undoing, of that which seems initially romantic 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.

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.

Marriage Story (2019) directed by Noah Baumbach

Adam Driver’s performance is exceptional, and certainly career-defining, yet it is difficult to dismiss how symbiotic his characterisation is. Together, Johansson and Driver mobilise tangible, flawed personas which position their identities as central to the film’s fabric, though firmly in the fore of impressive supporting actors. Despite the generally high standard of its supporting cast (Laura Dern as a notable example), all those who surround Charlie and Nichole fade into white noise. We watch as they navigate their divorce, an emotionally uncharted space; we follow as they take vulnerable steps into an uncertain future severed from each other, into a crowded bar or into an attorney’s meeting room. The camera continually lingers on both Charlie and Nicole’s subtleties of expression, and we are glad to follow its gaze.

All that constitutes the cinematic construction of Marriage Story feels indebted to classics of the drama genre. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) is visually coded with the same conflating transitional cinematography as seen in Marriage Story. As seen below, profiles become portraits held in tension, occupying the frame in close yet slightly disjointed opposition and likeness.

Although it certainly admires its predecessors, Baumbach’s storytelling is not simply an ode to the genre, rather, it attempts to reconfigure the ways in which the genre visually codes its subject matter. The stylistic technique of overlaying transitions and disparate spatial occupation is entirely relevant to the emotional intensity of a corroding marriage and to both character’s lack of fixity, to their New York home and to each other. As demonstrated by the extreme close-ups or by the desolate apartment interiors, Charlie’s world collides with Nicole’s in spite of their separation, or, in fact, it is because of their separation that their unity is so violently dispersed, and their life becomes the detritus of a world once bound together so compactly.

Marriage Story (2019) directed by Noah Baumbach

Persona (1966) directed by Ingmar Bergman

The dialogue is outstanding in its honesty, and it compliments how masterfully the film visualises conflicting emotions, most effectively, with Nichole and Charlie in conjunction with each other. As reminiscent of auteur Yasujiro Ozū, the composition of each moment is glorious; whether its symmetry is more thematic, the contrasting poles of the West and East coasts, or if it is manufactured more visually: Nichole and Charlie occupying either side of a small living room, confronting each other either side of the ever-largening space between them.

Marriage Story (2019) directed by Noah Baumbach

Late Autumn (1960) directed by Yasujiro Ozū

Tokyo Story (1953) directed by Yasujiro Ozū

Baumbach succeeds in demonstrating the process of divorce as a timeless and enervating topic, yet the success of Marriage Story lies in its visual achievements in relation to its subject matter. It is a triumph of detail, restraint and subtlety, a maelstrom of emotional variety and realism despite its aesthetic elevation. It is a glorious character study, one which moves its audience far more profoundly, and softly than anticipated.