Marriage Story Proves We Love Watching Couples Fight

Kyle Turner

As viewers, we like to watch things that offer us familiarity—a sense of place or comfort, maybe even of home. That’s why I like to watch Revolutionary Road; it reminds me of my parents. I’m half-joking, but the appeal of melodramas in which relationships and marriages hang by a thread, dangling over a pit of fire, in the mouth of some Sarlacc creature from Star Wars, is magnetic. Why else would trashy/prestige-y movies of marriage in disarray frequently garner so much awards attention? As a queer person, I take personal delight in seeing couples duke it out, and in keeping the pieces for myself (and I’m not just talking about bar-hopping in Bushwick, either). This year’s broken-hearted love letter is Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (on Netflix today), which follows the excruciating divorce proceedings between an actor (Scarlett Johansson) and a director (our greatest yeller, Adam Driver). Theirs is a mostly systematic dissolution, which culminates in a shouting match and, also, a couple of song and dance numbers; Baumbach, with his trademark arch wit, observes the dehumanizing process of both legally separating from a partner and also emotionally and mentally separating from them. It’s a great date movie.

This year, we also had Ari Aster’s Euro-vaguely horror entry Midsommar, which is, as he tells its, like a summer high school breakup movie, just one with more LSD hallucinations and patronizing faux-misandry. In it, a traumatized girlfriend (Florence Pugh, at whose feet I worship) is emotionally manipulated by her mustache-twirling piece of shit boyfriend (Jack Reynor) while in Sweden. While we get to witness their failed attempt to manifest some ideal Instagram post about living, laughing, and loving after tragedy, much attention is drawn to the dynamics of Pugh and Reynor’s relationship: the lack of communication, the overt ambivalence of even maintaining the relationship in the first place, the way in which parties are either exploited or undermined in certain situations. And it’s a funny horror movie, right? The film may end in flames, but will your relationship too? Actually, the cheeky “date movie” angle was an opportunity the film’s distributor, A24, didn’t miss, even offering couples therapy, because #Content.

Cinema about shouting, screaming couples feels as old as the cinema itself; it’s not hard to imagine that the rocket in the Man in the Moon’s face in Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon was just the byproduct of yet another domestic dispute. But, from American fare like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Gone Girl, to the French intellectuals arguing about Marxism and Maoism (a la Le Petit Soldat and The Dreamers), to sexy Italians roaming around the moonlight streets as in L’eclisse and 8 ½, to even tales of lust like Lust, Caution and The Housemaid, audiences love a couple falling apart. They make us all look so much more emotionally stable in comparison.

It may not exactly be a test of your relationship to watch rich white couples tear into one another for two hours (or is it? We love a post-film discussion in the uncomfortable Uber ride home), but the hope is that you can take comfort in telling one another, “At least we’re not like them.” And then you anxiously follow up every five minutes with, “...right?” We want to enjoy these broken relationships from a distance, but, then again, recognition is a little bit of identification, too. Though A24’s ploy regarding couples therapy might have been gauche (one hopes Netflix will avoid a similar stunt for Marriage Story), Midsommar and other films like it don’t become a test until they do become a test of strength, loyalty, fidelity, recognition. It’s about that last moment, when you can compartmentalize the fiction of watching the chain between people erode until it looks back at you unexpectedly, like a living organism.

Is it a red flag that I like to take dates to these quasi-anti romantic movies? Maybe. Am I going to stop dragging someone to see The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in the hopes they will make out with me? No. Can I take a hint? Also no. (I’m still chasing the great Gone Girl date of 2014, where my date and I had a post-film discussion for three hours. We were married in the spring. Not really. They disappeared, wink.)

The spectacle attracts people; watching bliss turn to blood is not a quiet affair in the movies, and it couldn’t be. That wouldn’t be exciting to watch. It’d be pedestrian, honestly, and maybe ring too close to home and too true to how many relationships end: gradually growing apart from one another, mundane and devoid of melodrama. But we fit our own lives into convenient, identifiable narratives anyway. We’re not only archetypical Rachels and Mirandas and Mindys we’re also casting ourselves as the sensual fling in Weekend, the smarter-than-thou husband in The Squid and the Whale, the best friends who almost weren’t in When Harry Met Sally... When our lives become explosive entertainment, the mix of the swell of real emotion and the performance of what we want that relationship, or termination to look like becomes blurry.

We’re creatures who live for drama. No one wants to tell their friends at a bar on a weeknight that, “We just decided it was best for us to see other people, move on with our lives, but we’re still friends, and I still respect them.” Bullshit. That’s so boring! To me, a friend who has worked through and mapped out the strengths and flaws of the relationship post-amicable breakup is more unhinged than someone wailing and pulling their hair out about getting dumped. In Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a sloshed Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) spews at her grim husband George (Richard Burton): “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.” Woolf is a real battle, with its contestants stockpiling an arsenal of emotional ammunition, pithy comebacks, and withering observations. It’s exhausting and draining to watch, but also thrilling—because you want to see what’s left of the couple by the end, and what’s left of you as a viewer.

What makes these caustic depictions of love and romance endure in pop culture? ReverseShot co-founder and FilmComment’s “Queer & Now & Then” columnist Michael Koresky (who is queer and married) says that “films about male-female relationships clearly aim first and foremost for emotional accessibility.” The irony of this is that there is no way to truly access anyone’s emotions. Marriage (and relationships) is difficult as is, what with each partner’s respective profound emotional baggage; and there are “no easy balms, no quick fixes, and no simple ways for people to overcome” those aspects of personal history.

Queer people, though, have a different vantage point to all this, seeing these relationships as their own kind of theater. Koresky argues, “Historically, there's been a kind of schadenfreude in the way a queer viewer—at least this queer viewer—watches movies about the horrors of heterosexual uncoupling.” Given that queer people’s histories on screen are significantly smaller and more marginal in comparison, we’re forced to grow up in relation to movies about straight people. Heteronormativity defines our lives, but the silver lining is we get to challenge it and, in the case queer cultural habits, like watching movies about failed relationships, make fun of and gawk at it.

Perhaps queer people have most to find in these films about romantic failure, the ability to find a kind of camp about straight relationships in general: the playacting, the artifice, the excessive heterosexuality. Camp might be an adoration for that excess, but it can also be a way to find the subtle waves of pain and humanity that color and texturize the spectacle. The straights may flock to movies about marriage, but, long left out of those stories, the queers can see them for what they’re worth: the human spectacle of failure. So, thank you for reading this invitation, please save the date for my wedding, to which you are all invited, at which I will recite a monologue from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and also perform the patter song “Not Getting Married Today” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical about marriage, Company. Please bring gifts or sacrifice your first born, otherwise you will be turned away from the open bar. Cheers.

Yes, he’s one of the finest actors of our time. He’s even better at yelling.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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