A note on “Marriage Story”, written and directed by Noah Baumbach
By: Masood Sabet
Annie Hall is the epitome of Woody Allen’s wry comedy, aimed at the intrinsic irony of relationships; “a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.” When Alvy gets wind of Annie’s taking an interest in living on the West Coast, he unleashes his derogatory remarks towards the city of angels; “a city where the only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light!” Even when Annie points out an objective and clearly visible advantage of the city, the cleanliness, Alvy retorts: “Because they don’t throw their garbage away, they make it into TV shows.” Alvy is not the only New Yorker who brutally criticizes what they call the superficiality and shallowness of Angelenos’ outlook on art. Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story takes advantage of the same conflict to tell yet another love story, but this time the story unfolds in a way that makes the hero reevaluate what he’s come to know as logic and common sense, in order to be able to understand and come to terms with what seems to be completely illogical and incomprehensible to him at first: Nicole’s wanting to break off a seemingly perfect marriage.
In regard to form, Baumbach’s film is truly a work of art. It opens with introducing the characters through voice over. But it’s not the objective vision of the creator, but the perception of the main characters from one another. This casts an aura of uncertainty which blankets the whole narrative and works absolutely in its favour. “It’s always been Charlie and Nicole,” a friend of theirs says. Another one says he feels his parents are splitting. This time, we’re not going to go through the same old story of “just another couple” getting a divorce. Charlie and Nicole have been the image of the ideal couple, living the dream life, with shared ambitions and goals. Here starts the longing for the truth, as a result of the intriguing contrast the director has created in the beginning. What’s gone wrong?
The state of Nicole and Charlie’s relationship is projected on two occasions, through two iconic frames. In the first one, they’re going home after Nicole’s last performance. They get on the same train, Nicole sitting and Charlie standing opposite her on the other side. Charlie’s looking down at her and Nicole is looking back up. When the distanced couple arrive home, they sit to talk. Nicole is as cold as the shiver than runs through your heart when you realize your beloved has fallen out of love with you. But suddenly, when the subject veers to her TV pilot, for a moment, she becomes as soft as a teacher’s pet. Nicole can’t help but intellectually be in Charlie’s awe. She always has been. That’s what’s held Charlie atop his ivory tower. Nicole still needs his approval. “I wouldn’t know, I don’t watch TV.” says Charlie, with the TV on right before him. Nicole doesn’t read the letter at the counselor’s office because she’s intimidated by Charlie’s presence as an intellectual authority, or with a different perception, a judgmental “dick”, as she puts it later. Charlie gives Nicole a note on her acting that night: “In the end you were pushing for emotion.” He says. Nicole claims she can’t cry on stage, then takes her leave and goes to her room, with tears all over her face. It’s as if she’s had an epiphany: There are no equals, there’s the puppet and there’s the puppeteer. This is not a life but acting on a stage!
The other momentous frame is one at the end of the climax, where a sobbing Charlie has knelt before a standing Nicole, who’s comforting him after an intense exchange. Here comes Charlie’s epiphany: The page has turned, the reason has ended, he’s lost! He should’ve taken this game more seriously from the beginning. But he resisted till the last moment. Charlie hires his first lawyer out of sheer formality. Bert has a meek and submissive personality, which falls in contrast with Charlie’s, who’s competitive with a go getter attitude. Bert intends to comfort Charlie for failing to get into Broadway. “It’s very competitive, I imagine” He says. That, right there, is an enormous red flag which obviously shatters Charlie’s nerves. He’s completely out of focus, he needs to rethink everything, his mind’s racing. He’s not in control anymore, and that would never sit well with his character. He didn’t fight, because he didn’t want a fight. Now he does, and Bert is in no condition to be a suited sidekick on this new adventure he’s cooking.
Fail-safe is an admired film directed by Sidney Lumet in 1964. It’s the story of a squadron of American ‘Vindicator’ bombers to nuke Moscow in case of a nuclear Armageddon. From the very moment they receive the order, absolutely nothing could deter them from pursuing their mission, even if it’s a direct order from the commander in chief. To these pilots, they would never fly if the world weren’t coming to an end. Nicole would make a good pilot in that squadron! She’s locked on one target, with only one objective on the horizon: she wants to strike out on her own. She’s come to adamantly believe that this is the only way to redefine herself in a way that suits her aspirations.
Charlie takes a lot of “space” and leaves little for Nicole. He’s got a dominant personality, and his relationship with Nicole’s family, especially her mother, is one for the books! Nicole’s thirst for empathy is what drives her towards the path with Nora. She’s at the end of her rope, and she needs a voice. Nora knows how to make her open out, and Nicole’s only looking for an excuse. She’s seeking allies, and it warrants a few white lies. “then we have children and they lose interest” Nora says. And Nicole admits, whereas her look says she could hardly identify with Nora’s situation with her ex-husband, but why not? It’s simple and easy to explain. Besides, she has the material for the case: “Also, I think he slept with the stage manager, Mary Ann.” She confides to Nora, while she knows that Charlie’s short-lived affair, given the circumstances, was never a deal-breaker in her book. She even rewards her some-ten-year-old son for pooping and lets him sleep by her side at night. That’s how she’s determined to win.
If we’re to believe Sandra’s story of her “dead gay husband”, Nicole’s life has been voided of a powerful father figure, until she meets Charlie. No wonder it takes her two seconds to fall in love with him. But now it’s been a long while and she’s even given birth to a man of her own, her son, Henry. This new-found courage to seek a different life without Charlie could temp any Freudian therapist to invoke penis envy. But the story is far beyond a mere psychological diagnosis. Nicole needs to be understood, but it’s easier said than done. This miscommunication, which continuously widens the gap between them, has mainly originated from a language barrier. “he’s always clear about what he wants, unlike me, who can’t always tell,” writes Nicole about Charlie. As if the language doesn’t accommodate this new consciousness; it simply couldn’t be articulated.
Charlie finally releases his anger and frustration by putting a hole in the wall with his fist. “You’re fucking insane, and you’re fucking winning!” If someone’s being persistently “unreasonable”, people call them insane. But now, in the post-reason era, the line between sanity and insanity is blurrier than ever, but Charlie’s the type that is among the last to abandon the collapsing castle. He never wanted to be like his father. This burst of temperament and this monster who’s being awakened within him is his ultimate anathema. It’s high time he came to terms with this incomprehensible predicament. By accepting Nicole’s terms, Charlie finally succumbs to what he used to call insanity. He’s always wanted to be in the winning team, and now after a fierce fight he finds himself defeated, and nothing tells more about defeat than the image of a “tired” bleeding soldier, lying down on his face on the battlefield.