The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach returns to the Venice Lido with his latest Netflix collaboration, Marriage Story, which sublimely manages to find humour and humanity in the mutually assured destruction of a messy divorce.
Adam Driver plays New York theatre director Charlie, while Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole, an actress who gave up her Hollywood career to be Charlie’s muse and wife. We first see them through loving eyes as each recounts what they love about each other: the peccadillos, the qualities, the habits, the reasons. It’s a sweet way of entering the relationship, which is immediately undercut by the fact these ostensible love letters have been written at the behest of a mediator as the couple prepares to separate. They won’t even be shared, as Nicole storms out of the session, uncomfortable with the process.
She is heading to LA to live with her mum and belatedly reclaim her career via a TV pilot. She takes Henry (Azhy Robertson), their eight-year-old son with her. Charlie stays behind to prepare to take his play to Broadway, flying over to visit when he can as the two begin to formalise the divorce. They are hesitant and want to do everything right, painlessly, without rancour, but that dream dissolves as lawyers – superb turns from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda – get in the middle of the fight, everything escalates and the faultlines in their relationship become abyssal.
As common as it is in real life and Tammy Winette songs, divorce rarely gets much of treatment in cinema. Kramer vs. Kramer represents a touchstone drama and Woody Allen has made cleverly acidic comedies out of the ruins of relationships. Here, Baumbach presents almost a procedural (or an autopsy) as we go into the courtrooms and lawyers’ meetings, and he isn’t shy of looking into the financial as well as the emotional cost of divorce (spoiler alert: it’s very expensive). There’s also the broader comedy of Nicole’s family, her sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) and her mother (Julie Hagerty), who complains that she gets up in the morning despite being 64 with “a dead, gay husband”. Likewise, Charlie’s theatre company features a great cameo from Wallace Shawn who always seems to be in the midst of a ribald story when the camera happens on him.
At the heart of Marriage Story are two career-best performances from Driver and Johansson. There is sensitivity, wit and intelligence in abundance, and in one barnstorming scene the kind of raw emotional nudity that’s rarely captured on screen: it’s the painful core of the movie which the laughter might ease but can’t erase. Baumbach is careful to balance our sympathies and it is to his credit that each one is both wrong and right as we swing from one coast to the other, beautifully captured incidentally by Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Marriage Story is a mature and rich work, deeply empathetic, coolly intelligent and beautifully wrought – in both senses of the word.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty