The unraveling of a marriage is one of those soul-crushing, emotionally wrenching life experiences filmmakers love to portray. In the tradition of films like KRAMER VS. KRAMER, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, and SHOOT THE MOON, Noah Baumbach’s added the latest entry to the canon with another gut-wrenching tale of love gone wrong.
For the most part, MARRIAGE STORY is largely even-handed in its handling of the protagonists, showing us the perspectives of both the male and female partner. Charlie and Nicole are both raw with pain and quickly succumb to anger and resentment, demonstrated to greatest effect in their mutual backstabbing as they fight over which city in which to raise their young son. After promising not to, Nicole retains an attorney and serves Charlie with divorce papers. Charlie responds in kind with attempts to smear Nicole as an irresponsible mother whose alcohol consumption has endangered their child. These characters are responding to an increasingly complicated situation in a very understandable, if not admirable manner.
MARRIAGE STORY is reminiscent of a similarly-themed film released forty years ago, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, a landmark of its time for its harrowing portrayal of a woman who abandons her son and husband and the custody battle that ensues upon her eventual return. There are crucial differences between these two films indicative of our cultures’ evolving standards of motherhood and a growing awareness and sensitivity: women desire a life outside of being a mother and wife.
In my earlier post, Hollywood Moms Worthy of our Sympathy, I discuss cinema’s portrayal of discontent mothers yearning for more, citing Joanna Kramer. In 1979, Kramer is treated in an unsympathetic manner as a self-absorbed careerist who at the start of the film walks out on her family so she can “discover herself” in California, leaving her son alone with a workaholic father who doesn’t have a clue as to what parenthood entails. The next time we see Joanna, she is watching her estranged husband and child from across the street in a creepy, borderline stalker manner. She brings further chaos to her ex-husband and child when she insists she be the custodial parent, thus setting the stage for a courtroom battle. Her ex-husband Ted Kramer is the hero of the film and celebrates his transition from a self-obsessed yuppie to a loving, nurturing dad. The film doesn’t concern itself with the issues that may have driven Joanna from their home in the first place. She is vilified and treated as a dysfunctional woman for not being fulfilled with her duties as a homemaker.
In contrast, MARRIAGE STORY is respectful of the mother/wife character of Nicole. Until now, she has sacrificed her own happiness to accommodate her self-centered husband’s ambitions. But she too had creative ambitions, having achieved early success and fame as an actress, yet abandoned her own dreams so her husband could pursue a career as a theatrical director. Her star dimmed as his prospects grew-a situation partially made possible by the prestige her name gave to his fledgling theater company. Although Nicole wanted to return to her native Los Angeles per Charlie’s original promise to her, he won’t consider it, unable to see beyond his own selfish needs. Nicole explains to her lawyer that over the course of her marriage, “I became smaller.” By the time Nicole and Charlie end up fighting in court, the only argument that remains regards in which city they will raise their son. though both Mom and son choose L.A, the uncompromising Charlie insists they must all remain in New York.
KRAMER VS. KRAMER fails to devote much in the way of screen time to depicting the relationship between Joanna and her son Billy. The viewer is never given a sense that she is a loving mother who fights for custody of her child because she sincerely believes it is in his best interest. In contrast, Baumbach takes care to establish that Nicole is a doting parent who is repeatedly portrayed engaging in every aspect of her caring for her son. Unlike Joanna, she relishes and thrives in both her professional and personal life. When Joanna surrenders custody of Billy to her ex-husband, it comes as no surprise and only serves to confirm the suspicion that she was an unfit mother from the get-go.
Contariwise, it is never in doubt who will be the custodial parent in MARRIAGE STORY, which offers a balanced perspective of the legal proceedings. While it’s true that most courts grant mothers custody of children, it’s also transparent that women are held to a different and more exacting standard than men in their parental roles. Nicole’s attorney, played memorably by Laura Dern, delivers the most eloquent monologue of the year when she, in part, declares, “We can accept an imperfect dad. Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was invented like 30 years ago. You will always be held to a different, higher standard.” Cinema may have become more progressive in its depiction of a struggling mother involved in an ugly divorce, but the truth contained in those words serve as a reminder that women are still largely at a disadvantage when they are evaluated in the role of mother both in a legal and moral sense. KRAMER VS. KRAMER remains an important film, but let’s hope MARRIAGE STORY is more indicative of future cinematic portrayals of a woman in the midst of a disintegration of a marriage or life partnership.
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