In Marriage Story, Johansson and Adam Driver are Nicole and Charlie, an actress and a director working together in what is assuredly his theatre company. A framed magazine article about them on the wall of their Brooklyn home is headlined “Scenes from a Marriage”, a phrase that is never a good omen.
Baumbach’s eloquent screenplay starts with a description each spouse wrote about the other. Among Nicole’s great qualities, Charlie says, “She could have stayed in LA and been a movie star but she gave that up to do theatre with me in New York.” There’s the beginning of the problem, or at least an early warning sign. Part of the brilliance of the film is that Nicole’s early choices are both believable – we all do crazy things in love, sometimes reconfiguring ourselves – and retro. After she moves to Los Angeles with their son to make a TV show, she gives her shark of a lawyer (Laura Dern) a long explanation of why the marriage broke down. “I had never really come alive for myself,” she says, but ends with the droll kicker, “also, I think he slept with the stage manager, Maryann”.
Nicole and Charlie’s fierce, hateful argument after they split might be the film’s most memorable scene. He calls her “a hack” actress. She says: “You gaslighted me.” They claim they physically repulsed each other during the marriage, and – maybe even worse – accuse each other of having their parents’ worst traits. It’s the kind of fight there’s no coming back from, and totally in line with broken-marriage films today.
Middle-class characters don’t have exclusive rights to toxic marriages on screen. In Derek Cianfrance’s heart-breaking, chronologically-fragmented Blue Valentine (2010), Michelle Williams plays Cindy, a harried nurse and mother. Ryan Gosling is her husband, Dean, drinking beer in the morning before his job painting houses. But they have the same impossible-to-resolve marital issues, the same soul-killing arguments. Cianfrance begins his story at a low point in the marriage, then gracefully moves back and forth to earlier moments when Dean was charming and Cindy was enchanted by him. But as they settle into a mundane life, he drinks and she becomes exasperated. When he shows up drunk and abusive at her job, she is the one who ends things. “I’m done. I’m done being angry like this. I’m done having you drunk like this,” she yells, and starts slapping him. They are both in pain, but unlike women of an earlier era, she has a way to move forward.