One of the most powerful films of the year is Marriage Story, a feature film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, which can be streamed on Netflix or seen in theaters. The plot follows the dissolution of a marriage between an intellectual stage director and his actress wife. The versatile Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star.
In more than two hours running time, the viewer witnesses the complicated path to the termination of what first appears to be a happy marriage. Baumbach tells his story with dialog more than cinematic approaches. He could tailor the screenplay into a stage play without losing much detail, color, or emotion. That is not a criticism. Baumbach’s language is keenly chosen and hits hard. A less-gifted screen writer would have the characters yelling insults at each other much sooner into the script.
Instead, Baumbach emphasizes the deep loving feelings that the couple has for each other. He designs the screenplay so that by understanding their love match, the viewer shares all the more deeply in the devastation. At first the audience fails to appreciate the reasons for ending the marriage; however, as the film proceeds, those reasons become clear. And still there is hope for a mending.
Thrown into the middle of the plot of Marriage Story is the couple’s eight-year-old son. Without the existence of this very significant complication, Marriage Story would be a much less interesting and less heart-rending film. Baumbach, himself, actually was divorced from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013, and they have one child. One cannot but think there are some fact-based incidents in Marriage Story.
Certainly, the divorce lawyers seem to be drawn with a reality-based, acid pen. Played by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta, the colorful characters are a trio of money-grasping pros who strive to manipulate their clients’ marriages into icy finality.
Driver and Johansson are extraordinary actors, and they really get to show off their talents in this film. The atmosphere never dips into melodrama, and the fast pace of the entertainment never flags.
In relation to Marriage Story, there is the 1952 film called The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, made by the incomparable Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, and released in a digital restoration on blu-ray by Criterion in late August. This film also tracks the troubled marriage of a couple who may actually love one another. It seeks to analyze in general the institution of marriage in post-war Japan. While Baumbach chooses language as his strongest implement, Ozu opts for cinematic approaches, along with simpler dialog. Shot composition, repetitive images, and the positioning of a character within their individual universe serve to tell a story every bit as powerful as Marriage Story. While The Flavor of Green Tea is not one of Ozu’s outstanding works—such as Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds, or I Was Born, But, still it tells quite a story. Ozu studies culture clash by contrasting arranged marriage with romantic pairings. He presents consideration of differences, concluding that marriage is basic and unassuming, like the simple dish of tea as a broth poured over rice. He looks at the segregation of women from men in social settings, and how that type of societal gathering distances marital partners.
Baumbach and Ozu are masters at their crafts. While these films in some ways are poles apart, each provides a riveting look at the institution of marriage in a particular social and cultural setting.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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