Chicken from the Fridge: Food and (Dis)comfort in Divorce
by Patrick Kaper-Barcelata
Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, chronicles the divorce of Charlie and Nicole. Throughout the film, food is featured in opposing contexts to highlight the presence and absence of home, unity, and family. The film opens with a montage accompanied by monologues from Charlie and Nicole, respectively, on what they each love about the other. “He’s very self-sufficient. He can darn a sock, and cook himself dinner, and iron a shirt,” tells Nicole as Charlie is seen in a warmly lit kitchen putting pork chops in the oven under pans of potatoes and greens. Henry, their son, stands on a chair at the counter and chops vegetables (Figure 1). Contextualized within the warmth of the scene, this kitchen shot, and in particular the parallel stances of Henry and Charlie, portray an image of family unity and homely comfort that is subsequently steadily deconstructed.
The next time Charlie is seen in a kitchen, he is visiting Nicole at her mom’s house where she has moved with Henry after being offered an acting job in Los Angeles. Charlie stands at the counter eating alone a cold rotisserie chicken from the plastic container he took from the fridge (Figure 2). Nicole stands on the other side of the counter, drinking from a waning glass of wine. Between them, and unbeknownst to Charlie, lie their divorce papers in a manila envelope. The construction of the scene emphasizes the distance—both literal and figurative—that the divorce has caused between Nicole and Charlie. The image of family is crumbling, underscored by the paucity and cold of the last meal they experience together.
Following the official filing of divorce, Charlie and Nicole soon reach a stalemate over whether Henry will stay in New York or Los Angeles; as a result, a judge appoints an expert evaluator to observe their parenting. Following the advice of his lawyer, Charlie hastily rents and furnishes an apartment in Los Angeles to prove his commitment to staying near his son. When the evaluator comes to visit, Charlie is seen cooking a meal for the second and final time. The role of this meal in Charlie’s attempt to portray a stable and loving home life emphasizes the centrality of cooking to family and homemaking. However, while the dinner resembles a family meal (Figure 3), the fact that the evaluator eats nothing and just observes contributes to a feeling of inauthenticity and posturing—a cold simulation of home. This cold is reflected in the blank, austere wall framed prominently above the table. In contrast to the warm, home-cooked meal in the opening montage, the subsequent occurrences of food in Charlie and Nicole’s divorce speak to the fragmentation of comfort and home in the dissolution of marriage.
Marriage Story. Dir. Noah Baumbach. Netflix, 2019.