Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019) / Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
With wonderfully-written, emotional stories, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig achieve the status of Hollywood's top power couple.
I'm a huge Baumbach/Gerwig fan ever since I saw Frances Ha. And my expectations on their latest work as individual filmmakers were met with two of the most beautiful pieces of storytelling I saw in 2019. So for my first review in this year's Oscar race I will pair up Marriage Story and Little Women.
Marriage Story is, in one word, potent. Earning recognition as a co-writer in a couple of Wes Anderson’s films, and slowly creating his own style, Baumbach has become one of the best indie filmmakers of our times. His latest film shows him reaching maturity as both a director and a writer, displaying a mastery behind the camera and on the script. A semi-autobiographical tale, Marriage Story takes us through a very personal divorce in a gut-wrenching yet transparent form; one that, unavoidably, makes the viewer a part of the process and lets him/her experience the grief of it. The story is perfect in its simplicity, all the while it is complex in its honesty. Moreover, the visuals are also amazingly thought-out, with a masterful use of the camera that emphasizes every emotion Charlie and Nicole go through and the increasing emotional distance between them.
And, although I believe the screenplay is indeed the essence of the film, its superb honesty could not be achieved without the authenticity of its cast, both the main and the supporting ones, who as a whole show a profound chemistry between one another. Both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have received a lot of praise for their work here. But even though Johansson clearly gives one of her best –if not the best– performances in her entire career, I don’t find it particularly extraordinary. Same goes for Laura Dern, who although is the likely winner for the Supporting Actress award –and currently one of my favorite actresses–, doesn’t display her full potential here, standing out more in roles like the one she takes up on as Renata Klein in Big Little Lies, for instance.
The true star of the film is Adam Driver, and this goes beyond my personal devotion to him ever since the first season of Girls –when I knew and stated that he was going to be one of the great actors of our generation–. I haven’t seen Joker yet, but I’m pretty certain nothing can wow me like Driver’s performance as Charlie, the egotistical yet brilliant theatre director who I never seemed to completely love or hate. All over his scenes, Driver gave me actual chills. He’s an actor that makes emotion visible and true. But, more than that, he doesn’t just depict emotion, he acts through it, he himself feels every bit of grief, pain, sadness, and anger we see in Charlie. Particularly, there are three scenes (or bits of them) for which I believe the Oscar shouldn’t even be in question: the infamous scene of the fight, particularly when he goes down on his knees and cries; the scene when he sidebars with Alan Alda’s character and he seems to be realizing that he’s going to lose everything; and, finally, the second-to-last scene, when he reads the words we had already heard from Nicole but he hadn’t, and he pauses for five seconds, holding his breath, about to cry. This final scene connects the beginning and the end of the story in a way in which what we thought of as a glimpse of hope becomes the closure both Charlie and Nicole needed and never expected to reach.
Baumbach is up for six awards, being tied up with his partner and muse Greta Gerwig. And, although Marriage Story is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2019, here we see a classic tale of the student overcoming the master. Gerwig began acting in Baumbach’s films, receiving her first Golden Globe nomination for Frances Ha (which she also co-wrote), a movie that became an instant classic as an ode to the struggles of adulthood –and one of my personal favorites of all time–. In the last years, she has quickly become a force to be reckoned with on her own, with her acclaimed directorial debut, the extraordinary autobiographical coming-of-age film Lady Bird, which proved Gerwig to be not only a great actress, but also a wonderful director and writer.
The second time around, Gerwig has given birth to one of the most beautiful stories and one of the most brilliant adaptations I have seen in a while. Her sophomore film, Little Women, is a story we are all familiar with. And, to be honest, because of this, I wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. However, the fact that it has been done before does not affect the originality of Gerwig’s truly remarkable screenplay, choosing to tell the story in a way that is her own, and making it seem like one we haven’t read or seen before. It’s an incredible approach to a well-known story, and the fact that she wasn’t nominated for the Best Director category is one of the Academy's biggest failures this year.
As far as acting goes, I don’t think there’s much to say given that the film has an absolutely stellar cast. However, I wouldn’t single out any performance. In fact, I believe the strength of the story relies on the cast as whole and the way the different relationships between each other's characters unfold. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, who received nominations for Best Lead Actress and Best Actress in a Supporting Role respectively, show once again that they are great performers, but I personally believe they have both delivered stronger performances in the past. Incidentally, I would’ve have nominated Pugh for her performance as Dani in Ari Aster’s Midsommar over her depiction of Amy March.
Other outstanding aspects of the film include the superb score by Alexandre Desplat and the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, the latter failing to receive a nomination –to be fair, Achievement in Cinematography is one of the strongest categories this year (Deakins, anyone?)– but whose work really stood out. I hadn’t seen anything of him, and I expect to see more in the future. In a few words, my experience watching Little Women was a striking surprise. Beyond its undeniable technical achievements, what I loved about it is that it made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me reach a sense of closeness to the characters portrayed in it. All in all, it made me feel. And that’s what I take of it above all else.
Now, with both Baumbach and Gerwig in the run for the screenplay categories –fortunately, not up against each other–, they have proven to be not only an amazing team (#couplegoals), but also wonderful filmmakers on their own. I do not know if either of them will go home with a gold man in their hands, but if there’s one sure thing is that I can’t wait to see them both thriving on the red carpet, proving that there is an increasing need to make more room for great up and coming filmmakers, both male and female, in the industry.