Klaus and A Marriage Story, or when Christmas becomes a year-round metaphor for the modern state of ennui
For the first third of the Netflix film Klaus, I found myself in a state of unsettlement I just couldn’t shake. Suddenly it hit me. I wanted to punch the protagonist.
That was Jesper, who stars in a Christmas movie that tries to show how a little bit of holiday spirit can cure a broken, lonely outpost in the world. Worth noting, of course, that the Christian element of Christmas is never referenced.
My own anger issues aside, I mention the craving to land a good punch because the previous night, I’d shouted my internal voice hoarse after finally watching A Marriage Story, one of the latest in a line of Hollywood smegma that prides itself, in this age of every big-time actor sliding into a cartoon hero costume, of giving actors a chance to ACT.
Which is all well and good—nothing like Adam Driver belting out a heartfelt rendition of a sappy song about the human need for connection and love.
There is, however, little said about the notion of duty. (We’re back to talking about Klaus.) At the story’ s outset, Jesper is revealed as a n’er do well rich kid loafing about and leeching off his well-to-do father’s considerable financial reserves. All that’s missing is a predilection for posting on Instagram. When did the fils-à-papas of the world become such insufferable boons? You’d think they’d at least have the decency to enjoy their indifference to responsibility and diligence in silence. Meantime, Jesper can’t help regaling anyone he meets of the quality of his silk sheets.
To give his son a reality check, his father sends him to the farthest outpost of the empire where he must set up a thriving postal service. Jesper quickly learns upon arriving that all anyone in this town cares about is fighting each other.
Seeing no way to get people to write, Jesper decides he’ll trick his way to the marker his father set up for him—post 6,000 letters and you can come home—by convincing the town children of a mysterious entity who, if you ply him with a letter, brings you a present. You’ve gotta have some sand to scam, so I’ll give Jesper that, but so much of his transformation happens to him, rather than him earning it through good work. Yes, he finally does the right thing, if you can call it that, but there’s little to be said of sacrifice pushing him to greater heights.
What is so interesting about Klaus is its very clearly demarcated lines of good and evil. While presenting us with a loathsome hero, it makes an overt attempt to set in stone who the baddies are in town—a pair of rival gangs who insist upon keeping the flames of internecine squabble smoking because…well, that’s how it’s always been.
Forget the unthinking robots indoctrinated into these two violent cults; what’s far more worrisome are the stragglers loafing outside it. There’s Jesper, a disillusioned former schoolteacher turned fishmonger named Alva, and a ship captain, Morgens, whose sole purpose appears to be pissing people off with well-timed snark rockets.
Of course, there is also Klaus, known to the townfolk as The Woodsman, a secretive man confined to a toy-filled cabin and the immediate area around it. He’s as pure a soul as you’ll find, and he helps Jesper along his way on the path to responsibility, and, and…
It’s nothing new to witness people undone by the circumstances of life they find themselves in after they’ve decided to stop striving and settle, but this smacks of something different—particularly because Jesper and Alva are so eerily reminiscent and redolent of the plague that has set in amongst portions of Gen-Xers, most of the millennial generation, and the ones coming up behind—so far, anyway.
Here we turn back to A Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a tale of heartbreak and woe that seems to comprise elements of his own life. But whereas Baumbach the younger was heralded as one of the big things on tap, thanks to his film The Squid and the Whale, which watched the disintegration of another marriage through Jesse Eisenberg’s eyes.
Here was a set of parents wrapped up in the unmagnificent lives of adults, setting out with good intentions but lacking the fortitude and willpower to not mind the mud that reality slings onto them. Baumbach moved on to another version of disaffection and ennui with a middle-aged Ben Stiller navigating Los Angeles in Greenberg, then millennial listlessness with Greta Gerwig spinning her wheels as a twenty-something Frances Ha in New York…and these are the only Baumbach films I’ve seen. Kind of like Whit Stillman, I’m just not that big of a fan of his woe-is-me, well-heeled schtick. What I’m getting at is Baumbach always seems most comfortable when he’s able to find fault with generations other than his own. He takes a leap of faith and lands upon commenting upon human relationships from a generation gap’s safe remove.
A Marriage Story is Baumbach’s chance to raise the ire of bourgeois cinemagoers at the divorce system in America, and the way couples are ground up in its gears, emerging in the other side disheveled, not recognizing themselves or the person they used to love. If there was any love left, you can bet it will bleed it dry in divorce court.
There’s plenty of great acting, mostly between Scarlett Johansson and Driver; the rest of the cast is relegated to stock support, providing comedic zingers and overall zaniness. I feel like there is a direct line here to the structure of screwball comedy in the first half of the 20th century, but I’m not sufficiently well-versed to be sure. What I guess I’m trying to say is that Baumbach doesn’t seem to tread any new territory here.
Johansson’s character bemoans the fact that she married so young, before she even knew who she was, and allowed her career to sputter while she helped raise a child and make a marriage work.
Meanwhile, men and women who lived and died before us are watching this movie in whatever way, shape, or form they embody in whatever realm, shaking their heads, releasing long sighs. These folks never had a choice in marriage; it was more something you did—often while very young. It was borne of a sense of duty: starting a family, putting your “happiness” whatever that was, aside for the good of your offspring. Furthering the species in a setting that, hopefully, allowed it to thrive.
All of which begs an unheard question of Marriage Story: how can Millennials form good, stable families if they’re too busy self-actualizing? They say your life is over upon your firstborn’s delivery; from then on, you and your partner live for another. But here the selfishness of Johansson and Driver is on full display, even when they’re trying to play provider. They argue over who gets to take the son trick-or-treating; Driver bemoans the fact that he is missing important work with his theater troupe in New York while he jets out to LA for weekends with his son.
The movie wants us to shed tears when it builds toward its great crescendos; swelling most considerably through that Driver musical performance, then again in the final scene when he reads a note from Johansson about what she found so endearing about him in the first place.
But this is not real life; real life does not conform to a movie’s structure. You have your highs and lows, and you have the next morning, when you’ve got to wake up and attend to your business. Sometimes, a day is just a day. You’ve got to deal with that mundanity and shrug aside feelings of not-so-self-fulfillment and check in on your kids all the same and make sure they’re OK.
This is where the lack of a Christian theme in Klaus was so striking, to me. Of course, religion isn’t the only bedrock upon which to build a marriage, but it certainly helps to have collective beliefs and aspirations, rather than some ephemeral notion of “true love”. When that fades, what do you rely upon? You made a commitment, ’til death and all that; and now, you can quit when the going gets tough? What effect will that separation have on your child?
Anyhow. I just didn’t buy into how these stories ended. In Klaus, Jesper ends up with Alva because…well, it’s how it was meant to be, I guess. He saves the day and makes the outpost a place well worth living in. And all he really had to risk was never seeing those silk sheets again.
This is sacrifice in the digital age.