Memorable Moments: That Argument in Marriage Story

Can we continue to love someone, even when it doesn't make sense anymore?

Marriage Story (screen grab) CR: Netflix

Marriage Story is a movie that breaks – it charts the breaking of a marriage, and in the process, breaks the viewer emotionally as we are forced to bear witness to the turn of a relationship. What was once beautiful and sparkly has now become ugly and twisted, where stories shared in confidence turn into dark tales of an unfit parent. Your partner in crime now sits at the opposite end of the table, unreachable, between the two of you a chasm so big that any overture would most certainly result in an unending spiral into nothingness.

This is where the argument scene comes into play. The distance between the two is the greatest at this point; Charlie (Adam Driver) feels betrayed by Nicole (Scarlet Johansson), swindled into a living situation based in LA, while Nicole wrangles with her frustration of Charlie being unable to see outside his own perspective. Even when Nicole admits she had more to lose stepping back from the marriage because she loved him more, Charlie doesn’t acknowledge this nugget of information, dragging her back into the tug of war.

They deliberately say things that would hurt the other, poking at open wounds all in an effort to gain the upper hand. Nicole lands the first jab when she says Charlie is just like his father, especially when she knows how he feels about his father, and how he has lived his life putting as much distance between them as possible.

The provoking continues, both circling each other like vultures, searching for the emotional soft spot, seeking to puncture and bleed the other. With the drama so up close and personal, I feel like I am watching a play, where things are louder and more aggressive, expounding on the theatre conceit Baumbach uses throughout – why else would there be random moments of bursting into song as a way to chart emotion?

Detractors have much to gripe about with regard to this scene; the pretension in the language used (Would a regular person say “You gaslighted me!”), that despite the sheer vitriol Charlie hurls at Nicole she would allow herself to comfort him. The language used is a reflection of Charlie and Nicole’s upper crust New York space, especially since they are theatre people, and have ruminated in a space that forces the individual to grapple with language and its nuances.

As for Charlie’s words to Nicole, him wishing she was dead and saying this out loud to her makes sense when we consider the true turmoil that he is experiencing at this moment. The film takes great pains to show us how dislocating the whole experience is for Charlie, with him symbolically dressing up as the invisible man and a ghost for Halloween. His marriage gave him a strong sense of self, but now that it’s over, he is barely holding himself together.

The confident, assured Charlie that Nicole speaks of in her letter at the beginning is fading away. He makes a mess with the court appointed representative, literally cutting himself in trying to prove that he deserves his son. And while he began the movie on a career high point because he was awarded the MacArthur grant, his play doesn’t succeed in its transition to Broadway. Nicole, in comparison, is thriving. Her TV series does well, and as we see at the end of the movie, she is receiving accolades for her work as a director as well, which was always his role in the equation that is their marriage.

Thus, she is able to bring herself to comfort him because she is in a better space, understanding and forgiving his need to lash out at her because she has been the cause of this dwindling sense of self. Nicole has always loved him more and catered to his needs during their marriage, and that doesn’t just go away because they are separated, just like how she can’t stop herself from calling him “honey” at the beginning of this scene – she is still in part performing the role she had when she was with him.

This is why the cheating is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because she realises that this state of martyrdom she has taken in their marriage isn’t going to cut it. Allowing herself to be diminished in order for her husband to shine does not a good marriage make. This is why she cannot bring herself to read the letter out loud to him at the beginning. If she did, she would have returned to him, her love for him winning out against the need for a sense of self.

As they duke it out ferociously in this scene, we ask ourselves why they didn’t air their grievances and issues earlier on. Maybe that would have saved their marriage. Or maybe things need to break sometimes, so that we are forced along paths we might not have taken, breathing new air into relationships, the blowing of a different wind that might change things for the better.

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