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Cinema of separation

  • ‘Marriage Story’, which leads the Golden Globe nominations, is about a couple going through a divorce
  • The divorce film is a varied subgenre, ranging from ‘A Separation’ to ‘5x2’

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play a couple going through a divorce in Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play a couple going through a divorce in Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Marriage Story. It released on 6 December on Netflix and spread like wildfire on social media over the weekend, timelines inundated with screenshots from the epic blowup scene and arguments about whether Adam Driver is actually hot. Three days later, the Golden Globe nominations were announced. The film emerged as the unlikely front-runner, with six nods, for direction and screenplay (Noah Baumbach), lead actors in a dramatic role (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), supporting actor (Laura Dern) and score (Randy Newman).

Baumbach’s film—his fifth in five years—is about the dissolution of the marriage of Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) Barber. He’s a New York theatre director who has just received a MacArthur Genius grant; she’s an actor in his plays, now branching into TV. We watch as their initial resolve to keep things civil for the sake of their boy collapses in the course of an increasingly ugly legal battle. Baumbach tamps down on his trademark whimsy—though he can’t resist a slapstick scene with Charlie cutting his arm by mistake—and elicits extraordinary performances from his lead actors, Johansson talking for almost 10 minutes straight at her lawyer’s office, Driver showing off his range with a despairing performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive.

Marriage Story is a linear, condensed narrative, covering a little over a year in the Barbers’ lives, but films about fraying relationships often favour larger jumps across time. Blue Valentine (2010) did this to devastating effect, alternating the young, charming Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams with their older, sadder, fractious selves. Francois Ozon’s 5x2 (2004) used an audacious backwards structure (similar to the controversial French film Irreversible, released two years earlier), starting with a couple’s divorce and ending with them meeting for the first time. And in Before Midnight (2013)—a quasi-divorce film, since Celine and Jesse are together and have children but aren’t married—time and memory are weaponized as the romantic promise of the first two films is replaced by the hard truths of the third.

Some films use divorce to suggest other forms of schism. The title of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2012) could refer to the divorce of the well-to-do couple at the film’s centre, but could equally be about the societal divisions that set in motion the tragic events that drive the narrative. In Three Colours: White (1994), Krzysztof Kieślowski compares the unequal relationship between a timid Polish man and his contemptuous French wife to the vast economic gulf between East and West Europe. And Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) doesn’t take long to go from unhappy relationship film to full-blown giallo, the cracking of the marriage mirrored by Isabelle Adjani’s terrifying break with reality. So if you are looking for something to pair with Baumbach in a divorce double bill, don’t automatically reach for Kramer vs. Kramer.

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