How ‘Marriage Story’ (2019) Portrays One of the Greatest Criminal Acts Committed in a Marriage

Marriage Story (2019) is the brand new Noah Baumbach film released on Netflix this month. The film and its stars have been nominated for numerous upcoming awards, and its clips are being shared and discussed all over the tweeter every day. Whether you’ve liked the film or even seen it, you’ve at least heard of it and its explosive scene between the two main characters- Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver.)

It took me two viewings of this film to grasp how I felt about the plot and most importantly its characters. This film is not a compilation of explosive arguments and epic monologues of existensial emotions like you would expect a story about divorce would be. In fact, it’s painfully human and every look, every dismissed grievance, and the silent tears of heartache are what drive this film and shape what these two characters’ marriage was and what their divorce is.

Upon my first viewing of this story, I will just bluntly say that I thought Nicole was the “bad guy.” I was focused on the entire story line with the lawyers that I ignored the references she made to their marriage and the hints Charlie made at the fact that he was a dismissive husband.

When I watched this film the second time, I gained new perspective because I was able to look past the cover simplicities of the story and understand that this isn’t just a string of events during the Barbers’ divorce, but it was also a break down of their marriage and why it failed.

Image still from Marriage Story- Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) laying in bed together with their son.
Image courtesy of Netflix

The story begins with two beautiful monologues from each main character titled, “What I Love About Nicole/Charlie.” It’s probably one of my favorite opening scenes to a film this year. It has a beautiful score that plays over the dialogue that only enhances your basis for the characters and the emotions accompanied by them. 

The film continues on with magnificent performances from Driver and Johansson and loveable performances from their supporting cast: Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Azhy Robertson, Julie Haggerty and Merritt WeverMarriage Story also contains some of the best dialogue that encapsulates Nicole’s acquiescence and unhappiness while also constructing the narrative of who Charlie was as a husband. 

Nicole spends a lot of time reeling in unheard grievances and heartbreak. Johansson’s performance is so restrained and painful. There is a scene at the beginning of the film that truly struck a chord with me- when Nicole walks away from Charlie and silently bursts into a heartbreaking stream of quiet tears. By the second time I watched this, I understood that Nicole was epically in love with Charlie, and at no point, did he ever feel that same way for her. She “fed his aliveness” and gave him the nurture he needed to be his best self, and he selfishly consumed it all without ever sharing that life. When Charlie said to Nicole that this is the life she chose, I almost believed him the first time, but Nicole never agreed to have the life she ended up with Charlie. She has a giving and overly-appeasing nature sometimes, but the greatest failure of this film is that I believe Charlie will never fully understand the depths of how, for lack of a better word, shitty a husband he really was.

Remember I said this film is not a large showcase of brash emotions and screaming matches. It is a slow burn. It’s a display of a tortured woman and her indifferent husband dealing with the pressures of divorce, reality, and the consequences of their prior decisions, all boiling up into the blowout that is circulating social media. And even during that blowup, when words are said just to hurt not to actually say anything, Nicole is displayed as the empathetic character. She loves first and through every act, she may sometimes seem vindictive because of the pain she went through, but I never stopped sympathizing with her and wanting her to have the freedom (and space) she craved.

Image still from Marriage Story- Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) with their son pushing a door closed.
Image courtesy of Netflix

There are so many intricacies that connect you to the story. Even from the setting of Nicole and Charlie’s apartment. Everything feels quaint and “at home,” until the story carries on and Charlie’s apartment is stripped to the bare minimum. By that time, both of the characters emotions are stripped to the bare core as well, and there’s so much pain displayed in those moments I gained a little bit of perspective on what love is.

By the end of this film, I did question my perspective a bit because after my first viewing, part of me hoped they would later work it out somehow. But why? Why was I desperate to make these fictional characters work when they very obviously didn’t and they very obviously didn’t deserve it. Maybe it’s something to do with the relationships I’d seen my parents in, or maybe it’s something else I don’t know. But after the second time I watched the story, I felt a wave of relief for Nicole watching her sing and smile with her family, obviously being in a place she was meant to be. I understood Nora’s quote about this being her act of “hope,” because she was acting on hope for happiness that her life was more than being the complacent soul whose entire being was consumed and morphed by the parasitic, blob-ous personality that was her husband.

Cheating wasn’t the worst thing Charlie did in his marriage, and that’s where I think Marriage Story succeeded for me. I mean it was obviously a piece of shit thing to do (and he continuously tries to justify it, almost as annoyingly as Ross’s “We were on break!”), but it was Charlie’s complete desensitization and ignorance of Nicole’s feelings- like she was his personal machine, who only felt and did things for his liking and his convenience. He didn’t want to admit he was shitty, and he is so deluded into thinking that he’s actually done favors for her, he never truly and deeply reflects on his wrong doings because anything Nicole feels to him is invalid and nonexistent. And in that, he commits one of the greatest emotional criminal acts in his marriage. In this story, we didn’t need a massive display of terrible acts from Charlie, he didn’t need to be twirling a mustache in the corner, because every subtlety and every mental act of abuse was enough to paint the picture of who he truly was. And he was not the “nice guy” getting screwed over by his vindictive wife. He was the man who nearly erased his wife from complete existence and that is one of the greatest violent acts you could do in a marriage.

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