“What is love? Baby don’t hurt me…”
Watching Marriage Story, I could not help but be reminded of that other, similarly-titled film with a narrow focus on the evolution of a relationship, Love Story. While the ending of Marriage Story is, in the strictest sense of the term, more tragic, I found myself far more devastated by the ending of Love Story, if for no reason than the fact that the inexorable workings of fate can still produce outcomes which are far more heartbreaking than the ways in which humans casually but steadily ruin their own lives.
A part of the dramatic backdrop for the relationship between Charlie and Nicole is their joint development of a modern adaptation of Electra, which is slated to move to Broadway as the couple begin their separation, with Nicole moving out to L.A. to resume her pursuit of a screen acting career. Electra serves as a potent precursor to the dramatic fallout between Charlie and Nicole, given that Electra (along with her brother Orestes) avenge their father Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of their mother, Clytemnestra. There, too, a once (apparently?) happy couple had been driven apart by distance and bad decisions on the part of a husband. While Nicole claims throughout the movie that Charlie had neglected her emotionally because he was too absorbed in his own work to take note of anyone else’s needs, so too one might see Agamemnon’s violent sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia as the summit of professional self-absorption.
For a movie entirely separate from the horror genre, Marriage Story features two separate Halloweens – one near the middle of the film, and the other in the last scene. When we first see Nicole on the set of her new TV pilot, she is trying on different masks. The film is pressing us hard to see our individual characters as just that – masks or personae, mutable projections of who we are to an external audience whose love and adoration we seek. When, in the middle of the film, Henry opts to go as a ninja for Halloween rather than the Frankenstein costume which was custom made for him back in New York, he is not only asserting his nascent sense of autonomy in a new setting, but he is rejecting the persona which his father (a respected director) is offering him, one which would have him represented as the intentional creation of a mad genius.
We are inclined to think that love is a deeply genuine and authentic experience of penetrating behind the veil of fabricated social personae. America’s leading philosopher of relationships, Chris Rock, once said that marriage involved learning to love “the crust of that person.” One night stands and casual dating are dismissed as superficial lust or mere attraction, while the noun love is freighted with hefty emotional and spiritual baggage.
“Now I know what love is.”
nunc scio quid sit Amor
Vergil, Eclogues 8.43
It is, perhaps, for this reason that a contemporary reader of Roman love elegy finds it so perplexing. As a genre, elegy was built around a set of conventional tropes and expressions, many of which involved the most passionate effusions of romantic sentiment and devotion. And yet, the mistress of the Roman love elegist was either a fiction, or (if a real person), a persona or stylized version of that person placed in genre-appropriate situations and scenes. While the love poems of Catullus can on occasion appear to be sincere enough, he is not really an elegist. By the time that Ovid and Propertius are on the scene, we get the sense that they are keen enough on love, but perhaps even more keen on writing about it in novel ways. This requires not only that they fashion mistresses and fictional backdrops for their poems, but also that they contrive expressions of their own personae as lovers. Consider Propertius 1.8B as a parallel to a situation in Marriage Story. After she leaves for L.A., Charlie is eager for Nicole to return to New York, and a central point of their potential redemption as a couple in his mind is her return to this geographical center:
“Here she will be! Here she remains! Fuck the haters! We have won – she did not withstand our constant prayers.”
Hic erit! hic iurata manet! rumpantur iniqui!
vicimus: assiduas non tulit illa preces.
Despite Charlie’s initial hope that their romance can be renewed, and later his hope that he can at least give his son Henry a New York life, the geographical decentering of his life in New York into a far-flung and sprawling L.A. existence serves as a metaphor for the gradual dissolution of his family’s bonds.
While much of the love talk from poetic personae among the Roman poets may seem to us somewhat disingenuous (playing upon such grave emotion for artistic effect), Marriage Story presents us with a romance shot through the filter of hyperrealism. The film’s most believable and affecting scene begins as an attempt at reconciliation between Charlie and Nicole, who have realized that the lawyers involved in the process of divorce have complicated matters substantially. A series of small misunderstandings and frustrations lead this conversation into their most heated argument in the whole movie:
Nicole: You’re so merged with your own selfishness, you don’t even identify it as selfishness anymore! You’re such a dick!
Charlie: Every day I wake up and I hope you’re dead! Dead, like if I could guarantee Henry would be okay, I’d hope you’d get an illness, and then get hit by a car and die! Oh, God! I’m sorry.
Nicole: Me too.
One of the hardest parts of watching Marriage Story is trying to convince yourself that Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver were ever a happy couple. But if you can suspend this initial disbelief, the movie is so captivating because it is so real, and this particular argument was one of the most believable lovers’ quarrels on film, because it ended not with violence or with one party storming away, but with an utterly pathetic Charlie on his knees, apologizing for the winged words which just escaped the bulwark of his teeth. Love, like death, wounds us so deeply because we cannot really understand it.
Old Sinatra sings,
Love and marriage, love and marriage
They go together like a horse and carriage
This I’ll tell you brother
You can’t have one without the other
We know, of course, that this is the kind of facile codswollop that people love in popular music, but it is manifestly untrue to experience, unless one takes the metaphor to suggest that love (the horse) is yoked to the institution of marriage (the carriage) until it has been so thoroughly worn out by dragging it that it collapses and dies. To be sure, I know some people whose marriages still seem imbued with a spirit of love and romance, but I know just as many who have settled into a kind of loveless cohabitation with the other parent of their child. (A friend of mine once said bluntly, “We definitely don’t love each other anymore – he’s kind of a jerk – but we’re like roommates with kids, and divorce is expensive.” Indeed, though the internet has managed to distort the narrative into some kind of Charlie vs. Nicole prize fight, it seems clear that the only villain in the story is the teeming mass of swamp monsters that make up the legal profession.)
Love is something which simply happens to you, but marriage is a project which must be made to work. English novels in the 19th century were wholly absorbed with the theme of marriage, yet somehow managed never to get around the central paradox of the marriage plot: all of the older married couples were insufferably meddling and obviously miserable, yet the highest happiness is held out to the young prospective couple if only they can get married. Why do we never see the central young couple of the 19th century grow to hate each other? Because the novel always ends when they get married! George Eliot reversed this trope in Middlemarch, with a conscious intention to write a story which begins, rather than ends, with the heroine’s marriage. This marriage, which begins as a wholly loveless but idealistic (for Dorothea) and practical (for Casaubon) business produces nothing but misery for the young Dorothea. But, as Aeschylus says, learning from suffering and all that, eh? Dorothea comes into her own as an unhappy bride, and then later as a widow. Only at the end of the book does she manage to fuse the concepts of love and marriage when she is betrothed to Will Ladislaw. (Of course, we never know how that goes in the end.) Moreover, despite its ostensible simplicity, Marriage Story is a rather complicated title, because the movie is not about marriage so much as divorce, i.e. the end of a marriage. Whereas most marriage-driven narratives work us toward the point of marriage as a goal of life, Marriage Story explores lives which have moved beyond marriage as something left behind.
Love is one of the oldest and most well-trodden paths in our literature, but no amount of analysis will ever resolve its mysteries. Marriage Story takes up in medias res, and presents us with a muddling mess of a life shared between two people who still love each other in some way. So much of our narrative focuses on the inception of love that Marriage Story can hold our attention almost by default, as something of a novelty – how often do you see such a genuine and honest movie about divorce? There is no real resolution in the end – just a final shot of a former couple who have begun to adjust to a different kind of relationship. Charlie and Nicole may not be Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but they join the ranks of countless couples before them, whose lives outstripped their loves.
“Was never true love loved in vain,
For truest love is highest gain.
No art can make it: it must spring
Where elements are fostering.
So in heaven’s spot and hour
Springs the little native flower,
Downward root and upward eye,
Shapen by the earth and sky.”
-George Eliot, Middlemarch