The Matter of Perspective: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Culture Entertainment

Having moved to new York from Indiana, Charlie Barber (Adam Driver)  – in his now ex-wife’s words – has become “more New Yorker than any New Yorker”. He is a recently established theatre director. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), born and bred in Los Angeles, became locally famous for a film about college life and was engaged to another man before she met Charlie in New York. They got married in LA and lived in New York, where Nicole was Charlie’s muse, as well as the leading actress in his theatre company Exit Ghost. After almost a decade together, during which their now-eight-year old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) was born, they agree to divorce and remain friends. They agree not to hire lawyers. And yet she does, which is when their initial separation escalates to a fully-fledged conflict.

Marriage Story (2019), written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is no mere divorce drama. It examines the nature of truth in relation to fabricated narratives and the perspectives from which any narrative is told. On the one hand, the cinematic reality of Charlie and Nicole’s life together is challenged by recurrent exaggerations and the twisting of facts by their lawyers, who unabashedly throw at each other freshly fabricated histories to defend their clients and pursue their own agenda in the divorce. On the other hand, and more problematically, the film stresses the importance of perspective from which any story is told, be it the marriage story of Charlie and Nicole within the film, or Marriage Story, Baumbach’s own narrative. Early in the film, Nicole’s lawyer Nora Fenshaw (Laura Dern) – the amplifier in this imbalanced polyphony – tells her client: “What we are doing is telling your story”. Using to her advantage the common ground of a female perspective, or a female experience, however heterogenous these may be, Nora wins Nicole’s trust and tells her to “start [her story] at the beginning, whatever that is for you”, implying that neither the content of the story nor its temporal framework are set in stone. The already striking discrepancies between Charlie and Nicole’s accounts of their marriage and divorce is further inflated by the third parties’ involvement in it.

While Marriage Story renders the very notion of a story’s perspective as its central theme, it may seem to betray what is at stake when it conceals the perspective from which it is told. The film’s narrative – I stress the word “narrative” here, for Baumbach’s films appear as a growing from literary roots rather than from envisioned moving images – is masked as coming from a position of neutrality, the Neverland of any fiction. At first, it seems that the film does not do justice to Nicole. She is portrayed as an irrational, passive-aggressive woman who, without a word of warning, hires a lawyer to defend her when there is no-one to defend her from. Later into the film, however, it becomes clear that the situation is not so clear-cut, and seemingly harmless Charlie has been the silent authority behind all decision-making in the family for the past years.

While Marriage Story renders the very notion of a story’s perspective as its central theme, it may seem to betray what is at stake when it conceals the perspective from which it is told.

The problem of seemingly neutral narration arises when an imbalance in Charlie and Nicole’s voices is revealed, manifested in Charlie’s soft control over Nicole and her passive consent to it. Following the longstanding tradition of the elevated voicelessness of a muse, Nicole’s portrayal implies that she did not object much to this state of affairs: “All the problems were there in the beginning too, I just went along with him and his life”, she confesses to Nora. Married to an authoritative and talented man, Nicole was content with receiving silent approval rather than making herself heard: “I would tell him things at home in private, and they would work their way into public conversation, into his work… I was just so flattered that someone like him would find an idea I had worth trying”. She also says: “On the plane I re-read the pilot as if I was Charlie reading it and I started to think it was just bad”, not merely admitting to have buried her voice, but assuming the authoritative voice of Charlie in order to develop her own artistic taste. “I didn’t even know what my taste was because I was never asked to use it.”

While I have, indeed, witnessed this behavioural pattern outside the cinematic realm, at first I could not help but feel uneasy when an allegedly transparent camera assured me that Nicole did not merely lack a voice, but also chose to do so. Marriage Story does not blanch over Charlie’s flaws, however, its seemingly neutral narration appears to mirror the kind of usurpation of voice that Charlie had exercised during his marriage to Nicole. A documentary photographer and theoretician, beloved by the left-wing humanities academia, Allan Sekula states that “a truly social documentary will frame the crime, the trial, and the system of social justice and its official myths” (from Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary, 1978). Clearly, we are not dealing with documentary here, whichever aims this problem-ridden genre pursues. However, Sekula’s self-righteous political statement can be taken as a useful piece of advice to those working with fiction too. The question is, does Marriage Story really fall into a snare that it set up for itself, pointing to the existence of a kaleidoscope of viewpoints from the Renaissance single-point perspective?

Wit-infused and well-paced dialogues have become Baumbach’s trademark over the past decades, which, at times, evoke an experience of reading his films rather than watching them. At the same time, despite their heavy-literariness, they are arguably devoid of a crucial feature of a novel: the narrator’s voice. This lacking aspect is the reason why Marriage Story appears to be told from the position of neutrality. And yet, placing the impossibility of objective storytelling at the core of the film’s structure, Baumbach allows one to drop the charges.

Wit-infused and well-paced dialogues have become Baumbach’s trademark over the past decades, which, at times, evoke an experience of reading his films rather than watching them.

Moreover, the portrayal of Charlie and Nicole’s two creative forces challenges the very notion of a fixed reality: It is no coincidence that Marriage Story opens with a close-up of Nicole’s face – black turtleneck, short haircut, dark backdrop of a theatre set – potentially alluding to a classic among the cinematic explorations of genuineness and artifice, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Nicole’s facial expression quickly changes from tense to lighthearted. As she asks Charlie whether the scene worked, it becomes apparent that the sequence depicted an act not from a theatre performance, but from its rehearsal, problematising the not-so-clear-cut distinction between performing and living. The difference between genuineness and performativity is constantly tested in scenes that show Charlie, his lawyer Ray Liotta (Jay Marotta), Nicole and Nora alternating aggression and amicability when switching between the liminal spaces of legal procedures and private life. Finally, a scene that at first seems to be structurally irrelevant to the film, Charlie’s impromptu singing of Being Alive at a New York bar in front of his theatre colleagues, in fact mirrors Nicole’s well-choreographed home performance in front of dozens of friends, implying that acting and living are not mutually exclusive categories after all. Baumbach demonstrates a subtle admix of genuineness and performativity in Charlie and Nicole’s lives, where genuineness is at times only an act and performance is sincere.

Working on multiple levels, Marriage Story is no mere modern take on Kramer vs. Kramer. It simultaneously stages own objectivity through form and shows awareness of its perspective through the narrative, revealing new accounts of the same events over and over. When the matter of perspective is at the core of the film, and genuineness and artifice are becoming difficult to discern, transparency of storytelling is no more than an illusion. It is now only up to the viewer to transcend the seemingly neutral eye of the camera.

Image credit: Bas van Leeuwen