Marriage Story is a gut-wrenching drama- a marriage epic – that is Baumbach’s most visually ambitious and accomplished film to date
The film features what is probably 2019’s best acting. Laura Dern leads the talented supporting ensemble—but it’s Scarlett and Driver’s show—and I think along with Florence Pugh in Midsommar and maybe one or two elite others- are the two performances of the year
It opens with voice-over letter reading—Driver is talking about what he loves about Scarlett’s character and then we flip and get the reverse. It’s a powerful opening and is a set-up for the strong bookend finale. It is a love-letter with strong classical music—much like the opening of Woody’s Manhattan (Allen is declaring his love for the city there of course).
Another standout is a scene where Scarlett first meets with her lawyer played by Laura Dern. Dern’s role is great because she’s in a film with Driver and Scarlett (who again give two of the best performances of the year) and every time Dern is in the scene— she’s the one who wins the scene as an actor. That’s really all you can ask for a supporting performance. Dern owns the room. In this particular scene though, there is film form being set up. We get a very long take on Scarlett speaking. She has no makeup, this is a raw and genuine performance with a rich characterization (combination Baumbach’s screenplay and great acting) and it’s a nod to realism because it shows her going into the bathroom (in one take) and coming back after blowing her nose. We get a similar scene later with Driver meeting with his lawyer Alda at Alda’s office where Alda leaves the room to make some food. This isn’t the cooking scene in Umberto D in terms of realism but still. It grounds the film in that realism approach.
Baumbach uses camera distance and wide shots to show the separation of the characters– sometimes with a physical divide between. This is Antonioni’s move—this is L’eclisse-lite. There’s a magnificent shot on the subway—and another in Driver’s sad and empty apartment. It’s a tiny apartment/room and the way Baumbach shoots it they look like they’re a football field apart
Many of the music cues (and the two singing scenes like say Keaton in Annie Hall or Wiest and Carrie Fisher in Hannah and Her Sisters) seem to come from Woody Allen. We have the casting of Alda (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery)) and Wallace Shawn as well (4 movies with Allen including Manhattan). Obviously the LA vs. NYC divide that is at the crux of this narrative is Annie Hall.
I’ve praised Scarlett and Dern (Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty is great and perfectly cast) and rightly so- but Driver’s performance is the singular tour-de-force. His charisma and complexity. Baumbach doesn’t take sides and he is flawed just like Scarlett. It’s an incredible relationship. Driver though is given 3 unbelievable scenes. Most great actors even in an Oscar-worthy performance get 1—Driver gets 3. One is the scene with Alda in the sidebar room at the larger meeting of the lawyers. Driver breaks down and realizes he’s going to lose. It’s devastating. You are in freefall with him and feel it all slipping away. The other is the blowout fight with Scarlett in his apartment. Holy hell. This is the hotel bedroom scene from Linklater, Deply and Hawke in Before Midnight. Lastly, Driver gets the scene (which is hilarious actually) where he’s getting observed with his son and accidently cuts himself- a triumph of physical and comedic acting.
A visual stunner is the Bergman or Agnes Varda shot from La Pointe Courte with the three of them lying bed. Baumbach frames the faces beautifully. Scarlett is crying- the son is in between them.
In the text is a nod to Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (it’s the name of the article about their theater work).
It probably won’t get credit for it but this is one of the better edited films of 2019. At least twice (look forward to a rewatch), Baumbach positions the camera distance far away during a phone conversation or in person conversation between the couple. Then as the tension increases we cut back and forth getting closer and closer until we are in their face. It is an extremely inspiring stylistic choice to effectively ratchet up the stakes
In the same vein, if it isn’t the Bergman shot of the three lying in bed – the best shot in the film is the edited shot and sequence where Baumbach brings us a dissolve edit of the dueling faces in profile in close-up. It’s a jaw-dropper cinematic moment.
It doesn’t quite belong as an artistic photograph in a museum like Antonioni’s work in say L’eclisse – but what a brilliant move for Baumbach to have the two roll a fence close while on opposite sides. Such genius visual storytelling.
Not quite as acidic as The Squid and the Whale though clearly from the same auteur. Stylistic and narrative similarities abound
In terms of subject and some of the narrative arcs certainly there is some Kramer vs. Kramer here- both potent films and meditations on divorce. I do think visually it probably has more in common with some of Bergman’s films and not just Scenes From a Marriage. Baumbach talks opening about the influence of Persona here and his choice to shoot many close-ups (which is also Demme, PTA, Barry Jenkins).
There’s some color choices going on in their costume I want to explore more in the second viewing. Driver is often in blue— Scarlett in Red.
Certainly Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (an excellent film) comes to mind as well.
Though it’s a domestic drama and character/relationship study– it is remarkably large and weighty as the title suggests. Baumbach, in reach and visuals, is looking to make the definitive movie about divorce.
After one viewing I do believe it to be Baumbach’s best work- a Must-See film—top 5 of the year quality