The other day, I sat at the dinner table with my kids and did something I rarely do—I told them about a movie I’d watched three times, called A Marriage Story, about a couple who gets divorced and ends up moving to Los Angeles.
I was surprised by how well my kids listened, especially my 10-year-old daughter, my middle child, who was hit hardest in my own divorce. A psychic told me, at the outset of the whole disaster, that my middle-child would need the most comfort during our split, because she would be convinced, somehow, that it was all her fault.
I rarely watch movies anymore. I fall asleep on the couch after the rigamarole of picking one on my TV screen, reading all the descriptions, listening to the noises start up on Netflix before I can even see who the actors are. (This drives me crazy.) And yet for years I watched many movies, saw films every weekend. Now, only a few stand out in my memory and remain, and this one, which I saw by myself in a theatre last year, hits home in a way no other movie has. It is a heartbreaker. And yet so true that I can’t keep from watching.
To me, this movie is Charlie Barber’s story—Charlie, a director and producer of a Broadway theatre company whose whole life is uprooted because his wife is unhappy in their marriage. And yet, as I explained the story to my kids, it was Nicole, his wife, who I spoke about the most. She is the change agent, the one who propels all the action, the one who wants a different life and sets fire to the marriage. She’s disgruntled because she feels that her own dreams and visions for a future have been held captive by Charlie’s career, and so she ends up taking a job across the country and never looks back.
You want to know something? I am kind of a crazy person. As reasonable and grounded as I usually am, I also have moments of losing my temper, of getting a wild idea in my head that I feel I have to follow through on. In my own marriage, I often felt the same as Nicole—constricted, limited by the circumstances of caring for children, of being shoved into a box rather than getting to fully explore the edges of my talent and capacity. I had not only the emotional needs of my children to care for, but also the emotional needs of a spouse, and that overwhelmed me, because I had so little left to pursue my own art, my own dreams, to make the impact that I knew deep inside me I could make, if I was just given the openings. So why do I feel so angry at Nicole in this movie? Why, instead of relating to her, do I find her actions so upsetting and jarring, as she takes her life into her own hands, while I feel so compassionately for Charlie, who clearly still loves her?
Perhaps I am like most women. Perhaps I’ve ingrained the lessons we’ve been taught about how women are supposed to act in the world. Deep down, maybe I think that we as women should put others’ needs first, especially the needs of our family, and that is what we’re meant to do. Nora, Nicole’s lawyer, has a great monologue as Nicole is preparing for court, where she shares the brutal reality of being a mother in our culture, and what is expected of us:
We can accept an imperfect Dad. Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was only invented like 30 years ago. Before that fathers were expected to be silent and absent and unreliable and selfish, and we can all say that we want them to be different, but on some basic level we ACCEPT them, we LOVE them for their fallibilities. But people absolutely DON’T accept those same failings in mothers.
But I don’t think it’s that I can’t accept Nicole having dreams and acting in alignment with them. What I don’t respect is her lack of self-esteem, and the way she blames it on Charlie. What I don’t respect is that when she discovers her new vision for her life, she can’t own it and say, simply, “I changed my mind about what I want. Things are different now.” Instead, she has to create a story about how Charlie is the problem. She insists he is selfish, and hires a lawyer when she’s in Los Angeles even though they had an agreement to work out their divorce on their own terms. She is so susceptible to another woman’s tiger claws that she forgets the man who is the father of her child, the one who supports her and loves her with all her flaws. It’s her ego that is in play, and not her heart. Charlie never meant to harm her, or cause her to feel pain in their marriage. He was just oblivious to her yearnings. And love, true love, is a foundation where you exercise your best effort, over and over again, to communicate where you are in the relationship, what you’re feeling, what you might need or want to do to ensure that it lasts. You don't expect the other person to be a mind-reader.
The thing about Charlie, in this movie, and about so many people who wade into the big guns of marriage, is that they don’t even consider looking back. Once these kinds of people make up their minds to spend their life with you, they are ready, as the Death Cab for Cutie song goes, to “follow you into the dark.” They are in it for the long haul, no matter what, because their love is true and pure, and commitment means something.
This kind of love is the true love, the love of ancient myths, where lovers plunge into the depths with each other, where death cannot separate them. In Greece, you have Orpheus, who follows Eurydice into the underworld to rescue her, and is so smitten with her that even the gods of hell swoon and allow him in. (He does, however, fuck it up. Such a bummer.) In Egypt, you have Goddess Isis, who puts her husband Osiris back together from his many pieces, who sings his body into being again and gives him a marvelous golden cock. And in Jerusalem, you have Mary Magdalene, who stays by Jesus’s side and anoints and cares for his body while he plunges into death before resurrecting and changing the entire world.
Charlie has this kind of love for Nicole. It’s why he manages to handle all her transgressions against him without hating her.
And wow, do I feel the plight of women who want a new start, who want a new way, who want to be seen, heard, and felt after so many years living on the periphery. But I’m also a sucker for true, never-ending love, the love of ancient myth. The love that knows no boundaries. Nicole did not have this love for Charlie. She was not her own person, and so no one could ever be enough for her.
I wish he would have known this, before he married her.