Letter From Toronto: Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’ and Julie Delpy’s ‘My Zoe’ Offer a Split View of Divorce

The two films treat the same subject matter, but the difference in perspective is vast

marriage story my zoe julie delpy adam driver noah baumbach
Netflix/Warner Bros. Film Productions Germany

Two different movies about divorce. One written and directed by a man, Noah Baumbach. The other written and directed by a woman, Julie Delpy.

“Marriage Story” is winning Baumbach all kinds of attention for diving deep into the pain of contemporary divorce. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson love and hate each other as they pull their family apart, trying to solve the unsolveable. How do you protect what is true and sacred about a loving past, even as the center of the marriage doesn’t hold?

Meanwhile, “My Zoe” reflects a remarkably similar pain, but told from a female perspective. Delpy, who plays the wife, leaves her husband, played by Richard Armitage.

In both films, there is a young child who is the subject of custody strife. In both films, the well-intentioned parents end up using the child as a tool to punish the other spouse. And in both films, the couples veer back and forth from taking care of one another in the daily way that families do to wounding one other in the way that divorcing couples do.

But though the two films treat the same subject matter, the difference in perspective is vast.

In “Zoe,” Delpy’s Isabelle has opted for an escape from a loveless and intimacy-starved union with Armitage’s James. But the film chooses not to judge Isabelle, even though she is the one who has strayed. Instead, James seems forlorn, angry and bitter. He accuses Isabelle of being selfish for leaving him, but his unpleasant character doesn’t make his argument terribly convincing. And while James seems distracted as a father, Isabelle cherishes every moment with their daughter, Zoe (this ends up being a major plot point).

Baumbach, who often uses autobiography as fodder for his films, may have intended to be even-handed in creating his two lead characters in the midst of divorce, but “Marriage Story” emerges as Charlie’s. Throughout, Driver’s character is the victim of his wife’s need for freedom. While Charlie strayed from the marital bed, it is Nicole (Johansson) who walked out on the family, citing Charlie’s selfishness and the never-clear argument that her voice is not being heard in the marriage. It’s Nicole who hires the shark divorce lawyer (Laura Dern), while Charlie tries to negotiate a reasonable settlement with the avuncular Alan Alda as his lawyer. It’s Nicole who takes their son to live in California, forcing Charlie to leave his thriving career in New York to be a good parent.

The difference between the two perspectives underlines how significant it can be whether a male or female gaze is behind the camera.

In an interview with TheWrap, Delpy said that she struggled for six years to make the movie and that financiers did not understand why she made James so unsympathetic.

“A lot of people didn’t want the man to be that dark: ‘But there’s no bad guys in this version?’” she said in an interview at TheWrap’s studio. “‘I said, ‘I’m sorry, sometimes there is.’ The character of James is so angry at her because she left him for someone else that I wanted to show that men aren’t always the great guys that say, ‘OK, take the house, I’ll give you money, take the child.”’

She went on: “Not all men are kind. And not all women are kind, but it would be unfair for it to be middle of the road… For me, it needed to be something that grabs you.”

In two remarkably parallel centerpiece scenes in each movie, the two couples attack one another, flinging vicious insults that expose their most raw emotions and the depth of their pain. In “Zoe,” James accuses Isabelle of taking a lover who sleeps with her just to get a visa, and she shoots back with a searing stare rather than a denial: “He f—s me so well it might just be worth it.”

When Nicole and Charlie have their argument, she accuses Charlie of selfishness, over and over. But Charlie’s frustration is palpable and real. He is a reasonable man, struggling to understand why his wife up and left him. He says the terrible things that get said in such moments and collapses to his knees in regret. And later in the film when Charlie stands and sings a touching ballad to his New York friends, he wins over the audience completely.

There are other moments that illustrate the contrasting points of view. In a sharp-tongued lecture to Nicole, Laura Dern’s lawyer warns her that in the custody battle, she does not have the luxury of being anything but a perfect mother. A man, Dern says, can be the most desultory father and still get custody. But a woman must be perfect to not have her children taken from her. The lecture is meant to underscore the lawyer’s cynicism. But it resulted in an eruption of applause in the theater where I saw the film.

Both films remind the viewer that there’s no one who knows best how to cause you pain than the person who has loved you for years. And that in many divorces there are no villains, only victims.

It just depends who gets to determine which is which.