Love, marriage, and divorce—you can hardly get more universal than those topics. You can also hardly get more personal. So, when we watch Marriage Story (now streaming on Netflix), written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a divorced man, and starring Scarlett Johansson, a twice-divorced woman, we're bound to think the movie is based on a true story. Or are those stories? Let's look at the evidence.
The "fictional" story
In Marriage Story, Scarlett plays Nicole, an actress who got her start in a risqué teen comedy but now collaborates with her husband, Charlie (Adam Driver), in their experimental theater group in New York. They have a very cute son named Henry, and they kind of still love each other, but that's not enough to hold a marriage together. Nicole takes an opportunity to star in a TV pilot as an excuse to bring Henry to Los Angeles and live with her mother while Charlie stays in New York. In their divorce proceedings, she asks for full custody so they can stay there.
The "real" story (that we know, anyway)
"I always viewed life as material for a movie," Noah told the New York Times in 2005, when he was promoting a different divorce movie, The Squid And The Whale, partially based on his parents' split.
At the time, he had just gotten married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, the actress who got her start in the risqué '80s teen movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The pair met when she was acting on Broadway in Proof in 2001. He grew up in Brooklyn, while she was born and raised in Hollywood. But in another New York Times magazine article, he claimed, "We're New Yorkers with a country place in Los Angeles." (Red flag, anyone?)
Jennifer starred in his movie Margot At The Wedding. They co-wrote Greenberg together and she also appeared in that movie, but its main female lead was Greta Gerwig. Seven months after Jennifer gave birth to their son, Rohmer, and seven months after the release of Greenberg, she filed for divorce. She asked for full custody and stayed in Los Angeles.
Incidentally, while Greta and Noah have since become a couple, parents, and frequent collaborators, they maintain that they didn't start dating until after his split from Jennifer. (No one look at that purple and pink polka-dot elephant in the room, please.)
So, a 1-to-1 translation?
Not so fast, Noah has protested again and again in interviews promoting Marriage Story.
"This movie is not autobiographical; it's personal, and there's a true distinction in that," he told The Times last month.
"I'm only able to make these movies when they become fiction," he said in the interview. "I might jot down observations from life or things that happen to me or people I know, which become notes in a notebook and then sit around for a long time."
To craft Marriage Story, which is told from both Nicole's and Charlie's perspectives, he decided to get more than just his own take on divorce. He also spoke to friends, mediators, and lawyers. Both Scarlett and Laura Dern (who plays Nicole's lawyer) spoke to him about their own relationships and divorces.
Is this fair to the exes?
If you had the platform of an Oscar-contending movie in which to air your grievances with your ex, would you take it? Despite all those protests, we're still going to be thinking about whether any of the arguments we watch onscreen actually went down between Noah and Jennifer. Or maybe between Scarlett and her exes Ryan Reynolds or Romain Dauriac. Or even Laura and her ex Ben Harper? Maybe that's one of the reasons the movie doesn't make either party in the divorce look too much like a monster.
"Well, I showed [Jennifer] the script and I showed her the movie, just so she would know what it is," Noah told The Times, explaining that he would have time to make changes to the film if necessary. "But I didn't have any concerns about it, and she really liked it, because it isn't about our marriage."
Jennifer hasn't made any public statements of her own about the movie. Maybe one day Rohmer will grow up to make his own Squid And The Whale and we'll see just how much of that is true.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.