In the opening scene of Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are reading out wedding-like speeches that they have written for each other. Except these speeches are homework letters, assigned to them by their therapist, to help them navigate their separation peacefully. Much like the wedding speeches, the contents of these letters also revolve around what one loves about the other but unlike wedding speeches that are said out loud, these letters are not read to each other. After this scene, one wonders if they are still in love and would part ways if they knew what the other had written for them.
As the film progresses, the cracks in their relationship begin to unfold, be it in the uncomfortable silence or in the hesitancy in expressing their thoughts and feelings to each other. In one scene, Nicole breaks down in front of her lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), as she talks about how she fell in love with Charlie, how he made her feel alive, and how she wanted to spend some time in Los Angeles where she grew up and he would always say yes but they would never actually go. How he cheated on her with a colleague and how he never acknowledged her aspirations. As Charlie struggles to find a lawyer because most of the lawyers have been already approached by Nicole and Nora, he also struggles financially. He is scared of losing custody of their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) and he wants Henry to know that at least, he fought for him. After these scenes, one understands their need for a separation despite loving and caring for each other. It becomes clear that their separation is not a result of one fight or one incident that happened a couple of days ago but is rather a culmination of many different things that just kept piling on, year after year.
Unlike a relationship, marriage involves the state and the state has laws. However painful the divorce is, Nicole and Charlie have to go through the legal proceedings, where things are so blown out of proportion that it only reminds them of the terrible things about each other. The proceedings fail to see them as humans with needs, desires, fears and insecurities. Their relationship becomes a public discourse, their personal ups and downs now open for discussion and debate. After these legal proceedings, Charlie and Nicole realise how it is draining them, both emotionally and financially. During a confrontation, the two furiously list all things they dislike about each other and Charlie tells Nicole that he wants her to die. But as soon as he says that, he realises he doesn't mean it and starts crying helplessly. This is the first time we see Charlie breaking down.
Growing up, I felt that love was enough to sustain any relationship and that loving someone also meant admiring them, acknowledging their efforts and respecting them. I thought that love includes all of these things and much more. Marriage Story challenged this idea of love including respect and admiration by default. In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film, Charlie reads Nicole's letter, in which she says that she can never stop loving him even though it didn't make sense, given their separation. Charlie also loves Nicole but he does not admire her as a professional the way she does. The film also points out the fact that two people can have different ideas about love. Charlie sees Nicole as a part of himself whereas Nicole wants to be her own person, independent of Charlie.
While watching the film, I went through a myriad of emotions. I went from hoping that Nicole and Charlie read each other's initial notes and choose not to separate to feeling that Nicole should really leave Charlie because he cheated on her. Later, I wondered if Nicole should have involved any lawyers at all only to get angry at Charlie for thinking only about himself and his career. Finally, I understood that separation was necessary for both of them. It did not mean that they were out of love, it just meant that there are no easy answers when it comes to love, relationships and marriage.
Through Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach made me question my ideas of love and confront my biases. It is one of the most nuanced films on broken marriages that I have ever seen.