Some of the most profitable movies of all time are about weddings; My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bridesmaids and Mamma Mia! are all beloved films that made significant returns on their investment, sweet pop products that deal with the anxiety and hopes of love. But while these movies are about weddings, they aren’t really about marriage, are they?
Movies about divorce, for inscrutable reasons, rarely have the same wide-appeal. The lifelong probability of people divorcing in the US rests somewhere between 40-50%, yet for all the films about weddings, divorce remains less common.
With his latest film Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach pays tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s epic Scenes from a Marriage (1973) — one of the greatest portraits of divorce on screen. Baumbach’s stark story of the dissolving marriage of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) is heavily influenced by Bergman’s earlier work, a decade-spanning miniseries that examines the disintegration of characters Marianne and Johan’s marriage.
While structurally distinct, both portrayals open on a similar note. In Baumbach’s film, the marriage is already over by the opening scene, and the story begins with the reading of letters Nicole and Charlie were asked to write for closure’s sake, about the good things in their marriage. Dreamy and melancholic, the sequence is infused with love lost, and spiritually condenses the first episode of Scenes from a Marriage, in which Marianne and Johan are interviewed for a magazine, speaking glowingly about each other, they are idealized as the perfect couple. As the public performance fades away, though, their misery and bitterness take centre stage.
This set-up informs the direction of both films, revealing the disconnect between the public face of marriage and the reality of joined private lives. Both works portray people who were once in love but whose mutual affection is chipped away at by petty and bitter transgressions. There’s no single blow-up that sounds the death knell; it simply becomes inevitable as husband and wife respectively put up walls to protect themselves from the pain they’ve each inflicted.
At times, Baumbach’s visuals quote Bergman directly, often paying homage to iconic images that emphasize the growing distance between characters. Framing and blocking actors within a shot and filling scenes with negative space between each person highlights the growing distance between characters. The silence that penetrates their interactions teases the awkwardness and disconnect between them. References don’t end at Scenes from a Marriage though; a scene where the couple and their child lie in bed together, physically close but their gazes wandering and unmet, directly references a scene from Fanny and Alexander, suggesting the immense spiritual distance between characters.
Thematically, both Baumbach’s and Bergman’s stories embody Tolstoy’s famous lines in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The specifics in their characters’ unhappiness varies, though in the end, the details of discontent lead to the same conclusion. Fundamentally, both movies hit at a fascinating point: the difficulty of representing marriage on screen.
Baumbach’s approach to the challenge of representing marriage and divorce is to treat both as absurdities. His film, though heavy and at times heart-wrenching, leans heavily into comedy — self-deprecating and humiliating at times, but no less funny.
While Baumbach’s film tackles just a short time period — a little more than a year — he uses a variety of techniques to emphasize how marriage unfolds over time. Flashbacks and character recollections suggest the greater scope of the relationship, whereas the use of well-placed silences force the audience to experience real-time awkwardness. As the characters look back on their marriage, the film becomes a portrait of memory and time, of remembering what used to be.
As cinema and culture at large present the wedding as the high-point of a relationship there’s often an underlying subtext that “it’s all downhill from here.” The focus devoted to a single day and a party is disconnected from the reality of marriage. If we were to move beyond the “happily ever after,” what would the marriages of films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding look like? Happy and eternal, or would they be doomed to fall into the same implosive patterns of Marriage Story and Scenes from a Marriage?
Marriage Story (2019), dir. Noah Baumbach, opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on November 6, with a nationwide release on November 15. The film will start streaming on Netflix on December 6.