Even before Noah Baumbach showed us the article with Nicole and Charlie titled “Scenes from a Marriage”, the movie screamed of influences to Bergman to me. The main characters are a theater director and an actress (like in After the Rehearsal). There are shots that evoke Persona. And the basic story feels like stuff that happens between episode 3 and 4 of the Swedish television series. The actual divorce in Bergman’s film is largely glossed over, skipping from the admission of infidelity to the final fight that leads to signing of the divorce papers, but it’s the sole focus of Baumbach’s film. Aside from all the Bergman influences, though, this is a very good film.
The movie uses a framing device that works incredibly well. The first ten minutes of the movie are two letters written by each of the main characters that details how they love the other, however they were written at the behest of a mediator for their divorce, trying to establish a ground floor of emotional contrast from their current situation. The problem is that the letters never get read. Nicole hates what she wrote, but Charlie is open to reading it. Yet Nicole barges out of the office before anything can be read, her rage at the very exercise.
She has good reason to be angry, having discovered that Charlie had a brief affair recently while he was also unhelpful in moving them from New York to Los Angeles where she wanted to get into television work. He, though, almost single-handedly made her a serious actress after bringing her onto his theater troupe after her one big credit of “girl who takes her top off” in a teen sex comedy, while she also hasn’t had sex with him in a year. Let’s just say, the situation is really messy.
The mediator was their effort to settle the divorce without lawyers, but everything goes sideways when Nicole moves her and their son to Los Angeles and she hires a high-priced divorce attorney. Suddenly even the question of whether the family is based on New York or Los Angeles comes into question, a turn of events that Charlie simply can’t believe. He’s behind the ball, trying to play catchup on California divorce law and get a lawyer while suddenly needing to establish a residence in Los Angeles.
The process is the punishment in this film, and both Nicole and Charlie get punished (with heavy implications that this is the fault of the lawyers). They end up dragging each other through the mud with the central point being custody of their son. Charlie is shocked at how easily Henry adapts to his new life in Los Angeles while expressing nothing but disdain for his former life in New York. Charlie does everything he can to try and reconnect with the child he suddenly finds that he’s on the verge of losing, all to little avail.
The movie is at its absolute height, though, when Nicole and Charlie fight. There’s so much hidden anger within the relationship that comes out in that famous fight where Charlie beats a hole in the wall. The scene really hinges on the acting talents of Black Widow and Kylo Ren, and both Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver rise to the occasion, delivering blistering performances of pure unadulterated rage. It’s a marvel to behold.
The messiness of life ends up sorting itself out and a truce of a sort ends up falling into place. It’s a messy end to a messy story, but the journey is harrowing and sad. The ending of the framework comes when Charlie finds Nicole’s letter from the beginning of the film. These were two people who did love each other, who got a lot from each other in their relationship, and who not only decided to split but who also let their acrimony against the other determine the course of the divorce, damaging both of them in the process. The portrait is incredibly compelling and a wonderful look into an ugly process that never seems to have a winner.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4