In the days when movie stars used to appear in mainstream melodramas made for grownups—when we used to have mainstream melodramas made for grownups—it meant something to watch suffering play out on a deeply familiar face. Joan Crawford, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden: With their charisma and their carriage, in their Hollywood-royalty clothes, these people were spectacular and special creatures—surely, they couldn’t be as susceptible to emotional torment as we mere mortals are. But then, as you watched them in character, you’d see their hearts breaking or their spirits being crushed, and the sting was acute. They reminded you that no one is too beautiful to feel pain.
That’s the effect of watching Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, two of our own most appealing modern movie stars, in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s canny and cutting Marriage Story, a Netflix release playing in competition here at the Venice Film Festival. Johansson and Driver play Nicole and Charlie, the two halves of a disintegrating couple: He’s a smart, modestly successful theater director about to debut his first show on Broadway. She’s his star actor, enormously gifted but overshadowed by her husband’s ambition and outsized confidence, both of which shine right through his aw-shucks demeanor. Nicole and Charlie have a son together, Henry (Azhy Robertson), whom they clearly adore. But things have gone jaggedly wrong between them. Nicole is about to leave the family’s home in New York for Los Angeles, where she’ll be filming a TV pilot—it’s a big deal for her, a chance to break off a little piece of fame for herself, though she senses Charlie looks down on the project. (He kind of does.) She’ll be taking Henry with her, and although the understanding is that the two will return to New York after her work is done, the act of dissolving the marriage is already in progress.
Nicole and Charlie have made it clear to each other and to everyone else that their split is going to be friendly and breezy, with minimal impact on Henry. But once Nicole reaches Los Angeles, the proceedings escalate. She connects with an almost diabolically shrewd divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, in a performance as cleanly chiseled as her collarbones), who reassures her that this split can be everything that she desires—but that she should also get as much as she can, moneywise and custody-wise, out of the deal.
Charlie doesn’t know what hit him; actually, it takes forever for him to realize that anything has hit him at all. He attempts to hire an expensive shark of a lawyer (a disarmingly intense Ray Liotta), only to back off in favor of a sweetpea old-timer (Alan Alda, characteristically affable) who’s more in tune with his own trusting nature. Before long, Charlie and Nicole are barely speaking, and Nora, speaking in savvy lawyerese cloaked in the soothing tones of a self-help guru, is calling the shots. The savagery seems one-sided at first, driven mostly by Nicole’s desire to stay in Los Angeles and keep her son with her—you wonder when Charlie is going to stop walking around with that invisible “Kick me!” sign taped to his back. There’s a way in which Baumbach seems to want to tip the scales of sympathy toward the guy in the story—Nicole’s behavior sometimes comes off as a little too ruthless.
But Charlie finally gets the full picture, and realizes that no matter what, he wants his son to know he fought for him. And if Baumbach has, until this point, only signaled that these two characters will inflict great damage and pain upon one another, this is where he really opens the door to the sufferdome. Driver’s features are rubbery, agile, insanely likable—he’s got the kind of nose babies love to grab. To see Charlie close down—to see his face as swollen as a thundercloud with anguish and anger—is to see a movie star channel the very things we’ve all, at one time or another, struggled to banish or at least suppress. Driver ferries Baumbauch’s super-cerebral script—Baumbach could never not be cerebral—to a place beyond thinking, where raw emotion becomes an entropic, hurricane swirl.
Johansson’s mode is different but no less affecting. Her face is as expressive as Driver’s, but she sends feeling out in packets of light—one minute she bathes you in a pale, warm nightlight glow, a reassurance that all is right with the world; the next might be a power-surge flash, as if some unseen, wrathful goddess were sending lightning bolts to Earth through her fingertips. But mostly, Nicole guards her feelings more closely than Charlie does, and her subterranean vulnerability is like a heartbeat you can see. Baumbach is working with an ace cinematographer here, Robbie Ryan, who opens up a great deal of air around Johansson—uncrowded, she’s free to move and breathe, putting every emotional color on display.
Nicole and Charlie spar and claw at each other, drawing figurative blood if not the real kind. (At one point, Charlie semi-inadvertently slices into one of his own veins.) Their mutual antagonism is wrenching to watch because they, and Baumbach, have already shown us what things were like in better times. The movie’s opening is a catalog of the types of things that, in the best circumstances, can keep people bonded for life. Before seeing a marriage arbitrator, Charlie and Nicole have been asked to draw up a list of things that each loves about the other, and we hear these lists read in the character’s voices. “He’s very clear about what he wants, unlike me, who can’t always tell,” Nicole says of Charlie. Charlie praises Nicole’s generosity, her ability to feel everything so deeply. “She cuts all our hair,” he adds, and in an accompanying flashback we see her in action, going to work with the scissors as wisps of her loved ones’ hair fall to the floor. The image is so casual and quotidian that it nearly destroys you. This is what a marriage looks like when it works. But you can never adequately capture what destroys a marriage, because that unpredictable beast is the most camera-shy of gremlins.
When Marriage Story was announced, beard-strokers everywhere—even those with no literal beards to stroke—mused that this movie must surely be drawn from Baumbach’s experience splitting with his former wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he has a child. Of course! Probably. Why not? Baumbach has already made one autobiographical work, in 2005, with The Squid and the Whale, drawn from his experience of his parents’ divorce when he was a child; it’s hardly unthinkable that he might make another. But if Baumbach has embedded any deeply personal elements in Marriage Story, they feel more like open secrets than confessional revelations. I suspect almost anyone who has dissolved a seemingly perfect union can relate to at least some of Marriage Story, especially if there are children involved. As a filmmaker, Baumbach’s smartest move here is that he never explains exactly how or what went wrong between these two, people whose sine waves seem as in sync as a pair of dolphins swimming in the sea. No one outside a marriage can know the truth of it; that’s a secret meant only for those inside. If you think you can squeeze a camera in there, you’re an endoscopic surgeon, not a filmmaker—and Baumbach would be the first to tell you he’s just the latter.