"I am not watching Marriage Story with my boyfriend," my colleague announced one afternoon last week. "It would be way too uncomfortable."
I laughed. I’d watched the trailer and agreed that it looked pretty sad but I knew my partner B and I would be okay.
B and I have just got engaged. Which means that, after 10 years together, we’ve been catapulted back into that state of unbearable naivety that people sometimes get about their own relationships. "Oh, our love? Yes, it’s totally different to everyone else's."
Marriage Story, in case you chose to spend this past weekend imbibing Christmas cheer instead of watching a film about people’s lives falling apart, is the new film from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha). Starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, it is a forensic depiction of a divorce and the disentanglement of two lives sewn together tightly.
But as I said, my relationship is not like all the other relationships and therefore, there was no need to worry that this film, which had people on Twitter crying themselves to sleep, would make me think differently about my relationship. No way.
I knew I was in trouble roughly one second in, as soon as Charlie (Driver) started talking. "What I love about Nicole (Johansson)," he says, "sometimes she listens too much. For too long." Nicole, he says, makes tea that she doesn’t drink. She forgets to close cabinets. She’s good at dealing with "difficult family shit" that he doesn't know how to deal with. According to Nicole, Charlie's best qualities are that he rarely gets defeated and doesn’t let other people's opinions of him get in the way. She loves him despite the fact that he eats with all the grace of a hungry pig. "A sandwich is to be strangled."
I pressed the pause button and turned to B, horrified. He had nearly an entire banana shoved into his mouth. Were they...describing us?
Of course they were not. Charlie is a self-made artist, a theatre director who specialises in experimental movement theatre. His work looks incredibly important and sees Nicole carried around the stage saying things like "I want no praise from impious men" and "Shall I fail my father..." against a backdrop of a black and white video of her face. Hackk...ey sack. Hack….eeey sack, I think.
Nicole is an actress. She starred in a big teen film early in her career but surprised everyone by eschewing Hollywood and moving to New York to become the star of Charlie’s theatre company. The couple are parents to Henry, an 8-year-old boy who wears knee-high socks with his shorts because he doesn't like to feel the wind on his legs.
It’s hard to spend too much time looking for relatable signs of impending doom in their relationship because this movie is set during their divorce. It's a parade of lawyers, courtrooms, offices with fluorescent strip lighting, long-distance travel and lives put on hold.
There are some pointed lines, however, that would make even the most robust of couples wince. "Once we have babies, we become the mum and they’re not interested anymore," Nora (Laura Dern) counsels Nicole. I feel sick.
However, it is the money in Marriage Story that scares me the most. I'd assumed the biggest expense of a marriage would be over once the plane touched down post-honeymoon. But divorce, it seems, would make the (extortionate) price of renting a marquee and buying 50 bottles of prosecco look cheap.
Marriage Story is set (mainly) in California and this divorce therefore comes with an LA price tag but still, $25k just to retain a lawyer? Then $450 an hour after that? I mentally recall the list of deal-breakers I've always applied to a marriage (cheating, money laundering, murder...) and they all suddenly begin to look a little more like things I could probably overlook.
It is the lesson of communication that I really take from Marriage Story. The relationship between Charlie and Nicole is broken by an infidelity (which, FYI, is something Charlie gets off with incredibly lightly) and a need for Nicole to establish herself on her own terms. Their relationship post-separation becomes muddied the second the two stop talking; Nicole, perhaps more hurt than she realises, refuses to speak to a mediator. This leads to lawyers getting involved who reframe the narrative of the relationship to suit their own purposes. Watching the (excellent) Laura Dern and Ray Liotta manipulate innocent incidents in the Charlie and Nicole story into deadly weapons to launch at the other party, it is clear that this isn't what Charlie or Nicole wanted. But their ability to communicate is gone and, as a result, something that would have always been sad, also becomes incredibly ugly.
Both B and I had a little cry after the film. "That was just so sad," he wept, in what was one of the only times I've ever seen him cry (in fairness, he and pals had inexplicably drunk a bottle of Buckfast at a Christmas party the previous night).
"I know," I sobbed, for what was probably the third time that week (it's just who I am as a person).
We talked for a long time after the film about our relationship and whether Marriage Story had changed our opinion on getting wed. It hadn't (obviously) but we did agree to put more emphasis on our rule that we always talk about everything. We especially stressed the importance of it to each other as we get older and our lives take on more responsibilities: kids, houses, ageing parents and the like. So far in our relationship we haven't had to deal with a great number of 'adult' things, which could potentially be why we think we communicate so well.
Marriage Story served as a timely reminder for B and me that just because we're smug and happy right now, it's silly to assume that doesn't mean there's a point in the future where we might not be. And although we can't control what the world might throw at us, we can control how well we talk to each other about stuff – and that's the thing that's going to give us our best shot.