Opinion | What the success of a divorce film says about marriage4 min read . Updated: 05 Jan 2020, 10:23 PM IST
Marriage Story is a good ambassador of the institution even though this may not be evident at first
Over the past month I have been hearing about the film, Marriage Story, primarily from women. It is as if men don’t watch Netflix, or marry at all.
Usually, a film begins to travel through word-of-mouth because its messengers misunderstand the story to be about them as they “relate" to it, a respectable phenomenon in art, even though it is the same principle that runs astrology. But the enticement of the film is not brought about by any of the pampering tricks of fiction. The power of the film is in the shock of truth.
Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a set of quarrels between an American couple as they go through a divorce. Citing the deep realistic bitterness in the film, many people have argued it is yet another reminder that marriage is obsolete. To the contrary, the film is a good ambassador of marriage. This may not be so evident at once.
In a scene in the film, Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson, screams at her husband, Charlie, played by Adam Driver, that he never knew how to touch her: “Your touch made me want to peel my skin off." He tells her, “Life with you was joyless." He says he sacrificed sexual promiscuity for marriage (he is a theatre director). She says she was never happy with him. He tells her that she never had the capacity for happiness, and, in any case, she has chosen not to remember that she was happy once.
The married know too well that life is not an unrehearsed play, as some esoteric men have claimed in the past. Life is repetitive and marriage itself gets better and better through repetition. In fact, married people quarrel well because they have had the same quarrels many times and they know all possible arguments, and they argue even though they know what the other person is going to say and they do not have any new devastating point. The way they cite their histories, you would think no one else has histories and that they are citing history for the first time. But, like their arguments, they have mentioned the same episodes from the past many times. If people followed their own marriages instead of politics, they will realize that when someone starts citing history, it means he has run out of things to say.
Married couples have been lousy ambassadors of marriage because their job has been to perform the public charades of happiness and stability. Nicole and Charlie in Marriage Story are more influential ambassadors of marriage, because as we listen to their conversations, it is as if the vocabulary of marriage and the scope of its quarrels are limited to a few stinging accusations. And, there lies the joyful hope in the film. If everybody is in the same boat, it is the only boat.
Does the human brain remember more vividly a few bad moments in a marriage than the background hum of happy days? This is how, after all, the brain protects us from repeating traumatic experiences—by exaggerating unpleasantness and collapsing half a life of happiness into a vague memory of banality. Then the human brain itself might be one of the most lethal foes of marriage.
The exaggeration of gloom and the underplaying of happiness is at the heart of art itself. Leo Tolstoy was not only portraying the nature of family, but also why literature is the way it is when he wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Marriage Story, though, is the reverse. In its anthropology-grade accuracy, the film conveys that all unhappy days in all marriages of the world are alike; and happy couples are happy in different ways.
Still, can’t there be a perfectly healthy marriage? Just because everyone has the same problems, does it mean we should accept them as normal? If a disease blinds every human in the world tomorrow, will we say blindness is normal, or are we correct in aspiring to the rumour of sight?
In terms of physical and mental health, where an objective measure of a human ideal is known, I believe there is an argument that what is normal need not be the same as what is prevalent. A majority can be “abnormal". But in relationships, the commonality of serious problems are providential hints that they are normal in the collision between men and women.
But then it is hard for couples to acquire the humility to accept that their relationship is not so unique, that its greatest upheavals are fairly common. What Marriage Story inadvertently conveys is that people who quit a marriage are usually not quitting a person, but the idea of marriage.
The film is sheer anthropology not only in its traumas, but also in its more tender moments. In a scene, Charlie, consumed by rage, lets out a string of nasty accusations at his wife. But she looks at him with kindness, because she knows he did not mean it. Usually, when people are angry they hurt others with truths because only truth can hurt, but couples do not necessarily speak their minds when they are angry.
After this outburst, he breaks down and weeps, and she looks on with satisfied affection, the way some of us see Roger Federer’s tears: He cries because all this means something to him. But, in Charlie’s case, he receives that moment of affection because he clearly does not cry often.
Also, in portraying a divorce, the film shows an aspect of marriage that becomes evident only when it comes apart. A marriage is state intervention in a relationship. And the partnership of an advanced democracy and a woman is formidable.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’