THE BACKLOG: Marriage Story

I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

I will say upfront: I am not a child of divorce, nor am I married, or ever gotten close. I don’t have personal experiences with that. That provided me little armor for this movie. It still cut me deep and unexpectedly like a certain pocket knife. It’s sneaky that way.

The scene in particular that did it for me was the Point-of-No-Return Fight. The type of fight that the characters needed. They scorched the Earth between them to such an extent that anything amicable seems lost. In this scene, one character says to the other: “I loved you more than you loved me.” 

I have had those words launched at me like an ICBM. They kept me up for nights afterwards. It is the most poisonous thing someone has ever said to me. To turn the love between two people into a scoreboard… it annihilated me. During this scene, that memory came flooding back to me. If I wasn’t with my family I am sure that I would have broken down sobbing. 

Which is all thanks to the acting. Of course this starts with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen. Driver delivers an award-winning lead performance that crystallizes his status as America’s Leading Man. It’s Charlie’s story in the film, and Driver was the perfect conduit for it. The way he commands a room yet portrays such vulnerability at the perfect moments is gut wrenching. 

Those facts also make Johanssen’s performance all the more challenging. In the end, this isn’t her story. It would be easy to make Nicole a villain in the film, given that she initiates the divorce and hires the lawyer that pushes the characters along the warpath. Yet Johanssen makes Nicole grounded and relatable. The choice didn’t emerge from nowhere. 

When Nicole is talking herself into the divorce in the lawyer’s office, she was also convincing me of the divorce. Which sets up a gut-wrenching emotional payoff when she finally realizes the Total War that she unleashed on her life. Marriage Story would not reach the highs that it does without her performance to counterweight Adam Driver’s. 

Performances that are buttressed by the supporting actors. Alan Alda’s grandfatherly lawyer who was walked into a gunfight unarmed, yet still gave us a glimpse into how the divorce could have gone. Juxtaposed violently with Ray Liotta’s bombast as he wheeled in the big guns to the fight that he immediately saw walk in with Charlie. Those guns are leveled at Laura Dern who absolutely killed it. The moment I knew she deserved that Oscar was the small “Mhm” in response to Nicole stating she didn’t want Charlie’s money. Killer stuff. Absolutely sensational. 

Then the final piece to the puzzle is Henry. Good lord that kid is adorable as hell, and if he wasn’t so damn cute I’m not sure the punches of the film would land as hard as they do. As Burt says in the movie “Divorce with a kid feels like death without a body.” 

And Marriage Story makes sure you feel that to your bones.

Frances Ha: Lies and the Normal People Who Tell Them

People lie all the time. People lie to their friends, to their loved ones, to random people at a dinner party, and to themselves. Over time, those lies create walls not only to keep the world out but to keep people inside. Behind the shield, it can feel safe. But happiness isn’t behind a shield. It’s lonely back there and at some point humans yearn for connection. Only connecting with another person requires honesty, which itself requires a cold hard look at the truth, no matter how much it hurts. 

Frances begins her journey as a struggling post-grad desperately attempting to launch a dancing career that has been doomed for years. Frances doesn’t see that truth. She continues the lie that her big break is only around the corner, it’s gonna happen any day now. Until the day finally comes and the director brings the sword down, offering her a position in administration, not a part in the dance company. 

Frances leaves that meeting and careens through a journey of grief: fighting through the loss of her sense of self and the loss of her future self. When her best friend, Sarah, moves out of their apartment that feeling of loss is amplified. Frances drifts aimlessly through New York, drifting without the anchors that kept her straight for so long. Surfing on couches, trying to make ends meet that will never stay tied together. 

Frances even goes back to Sacramento for Christmas, but not even the comforts of home can keep Frances above water. One of my favorite scenes is Frances laying down in the bathtub, her eyes and nose barely above water, occasionally dipping below the surface before coming back up. Mostly, she simply lays there, staring pensively up at the ceiling. The silence is broken by her mother yelling in asking how long Frances will be in there, and that she can’t just stay there so long. It isn’t the most subtle thesis statement, though it is nevertheless brilliant.

Upon Frances’ return to New York, one of her couch hosts brings her to a dinner party where the cracks in Frances’ wall start showing. After the food is finished, Frances opens up in front of the guests about her deepest desire: to have a moment where you see a loved one across a room and be transported into a world that belongs only to the two of you. 

Her house of cards collapses at this point, she truly spins off into space on her own. Except it isn’t really space, it’s just Paris. Where is nonetheless alone.

Frances bottoms out during her return to Vassar College, her alma mater. She has returned to become an RA, though she is not enrolled, and since she is not a teacher’s assistant either,she can’t take classes. Finally, Frances learns that you can’t go back home or back to your safety net and find that everything is the same, and everything will be fine. 

You can go to as many places as you want: you’ll still be there. You cannot change until you look inward and face the music. The first step to change is honesty with yourself, then you can begin to be honest to the world.

Some time later, Sarah comes to Vassar to attend a fundraiser party that Frances is working at. Sarah and her fiance get into a fight, leading Sarah and Frances to share a bed together. It’s a deeply intimate moment where the long-time friends allow their shield of lies to retract and they are honest with each other for the first time in ages. Not that it brings Sarah out of her fiance’s orbit and back into Frances’, it only serves to prove that their bond is unbreakable, no matter what. 

After this heart-to-heart, Frances has new inspiration. Her travels didn’t lead to life-changing revelations. She was back to square one, and back alone with herself. 

And in the final act, Frances embraces the position offered to her and she moves beyond grieving her former self. She finally laid to rest the ideas of who she thought she would be. In this new life, where she is honest with herself, she gets a second-life as a dance director. After she premieres a show, she comes upon that moment she had always been searching for.She locks eyes with her love, Sarah, and they enter into a world of their own. Where they finally see each other, and they smile. 

What Frances had been looking for the entire movie was with her for most of her adult life.

Thus is born, Frances Ha.

Featured image is a still from Frances Ha, a film by Noah Baumbach. Via