Noah Baumbach makes its own Annie Hall and precisely because this film speaks so loudly and with its own voice, let’s list the similarities first and put this out of our way: It starts with a voice-over from the male protagonist speaking about its female companion; the inspiration in Bergman; the love between a male “intellectual, writer, creator” and a female who represents the artistic “body” in the relationship which is to be shaped by the partner; it is set in NY and not only that, the film (and the main character) loves NY, especially in a direct and fierce opposition to LA; it is a film about the love between the characters, but mainly about the ending of the love, and in this regard, it is obviously about the memories that they share.
Regarding the shaping of the body by the male counterpart, it is an artistic endeavor that is seen since the Pygmaleon myth (which was used several times in the cinema, see Luiz Carlos Oliveira Junior in New Queer Cinema), but unlike Annie Hall (and several other examples from the contemporary cinema, such as A Star is Born), this is problematized here.
The film starts with the readings of letters that each one wrote about the other to be read at a therapy session for soon-to-be-divorced couples. They are accompanied by an image collage showing their married and parenting life, giving us a clue how their lives were. At the therapy session itself, it is clear that the break-up is going to be tougher than assumed and they end up not reading the letters aloud.
After a moving to LA from her part, which leads to the enlisting of a lawyer by her, culminating in a legal fight which will leave serious marks on their relationships, but also unveil several problems that were hidden in the first place. What set out to be a bittersweet film about the love that was there, but it’s now gone transforms itself into an ugly – and expensive – war, with the power to endanger and disrupt the relationship forever.
It is then, a couple of months later with all settled, at the last sequence, when he visits her, already with a new boyfriend and all, that their son learning to read finds the letter and starts to read aloud and ask for help of his father, who then reads the letter she wrote months ago and at the beginning of the film but was never read. The emotions flow on his face and his voice – and at her face, slightly out-of-focus at the background – are clear. But not only that: the spectator, also, is led to tears. If at the beginning of the film, the letters in themselves were moving and the montage was very well made, creating a great start for the film, when read at the end, we already have an emotional attachment to them. It becomes not only their memories but also our memories of everything that went through the last two hours and a reminder of how and why they were in love at the first moment – and capable of being loved as well.
The film is full of amazing little moments: be it in the category of film style, such as when their images are intertwined (photo above), or when it goes out to show the New York and Los Angeles scenario (when he’s on the phone and goes to the streets of NY among the crowd is amazing), but mostly when the actors are kind of free to move around and explore. The theater scenes are when Johannson shines the most and Driver has a star moment when he burst out a Sondheim music in the middle of the restaurant. Drama musical at its best!
Just as in a good Allen (or Bergman) film, the actings here are top-notch. Adam Driver and especially Scarlet Johannson are superb and full of emotions delivering the roller-coaster of feelings presented by Baumbach; their characters are sweet but psycho at some moments, therefore honest and multidimensional and their acting show this; Laura Dern and Alan Alda are amazing as two lawyers with different kinds of strategies but the same caring for their clients (Ray Liotta in a small part also shows a lot of strength). It is, in the end, a very humane and sentimental film, giving voice to those complex characters going through difficult times.