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Marriage Minded

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Zelma Cutout

MOVIE REVIEW
My Love Affair With Marriage (2022)

For a movie that was never officially distributed, “Sita Sings the Blues” has had an incredible influence. “Sita Sings the Blues” combined uncombinable things into a work of beauty: director Nina Paley’s lousy marriage which fell apart between San Francisco and Trivandrum, a Hindu myth about the mistreated wife of a prince, and the jazz-era songs of Annette Hanshaw (the cost of the rights to which meant the movie was released under a creative commons license, instead of regular copyright). There is no way that movie should have worked and yet all the pieces somehow melded together perfectly. Did I mention it was animated? “My Love Affair with Marriage,” a Latvian-Luxembourgish coproduction shown at the Tribeca Festival, uses the same template to tell a similar story. A woman’s romantic relationships in a strange and alienating society with a heavy mythic past are explored through animation and commented on with voiceover and song, but it’s unfortunate the overall effect is less powerful, possibly because the songs were composed for the film instead of a serendipitous back-catalog discovery. They are sung by a Greek chorus of winged bird-women (the band Trio Lemonade: Iluta Alsberga, Ieva Katkovska and Kristine Pastare) who hammer home the life lessons Zelma (Dagmara Dominczyk) learns growing up in the U.S.S.R. Writer-director Signe Bauman also added a highly original twist – Zelma’s story is narrated by Biology (Michelle Pawk), as in the literal and differing neurons in her body which are fired up every time she experiences an emotion. But this unusual combination of narrative choices unfortunately depersonalize a very personal story.

A childhood split between Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan, and Riga, Latvia, a mere 4,500 miles away, is automatically interesting, but the story ignores Zelma’s family to focus on the other kids in school, such as the perfect girls confident in how to attract male attention. The constant interruptions by Biology to give a physiological explanation for every plot point mimics the narrations of scientific TV shows watched in school on rainy days; they both damage the movie’s pace as well as deny Zelma the responsibility for her choices. She spends years mooning after a green-eyed boy in her class, until he joins several other boys in an attempt to rob her at knifepoint. The bird-women sing songs about wanted to be desired and the pressures of gender roles until Zelma grows up enough to lose her virginity to an elderly gallery owner, who immediately asks her to marry him. Unhappily, she takes this proposal seriously, and spends ages blaming herself for this nonexistent relationship not working out. Biology shows how the amygdala sends out stress signals in response to anxiety, and how Zelma’s first husband Sergei (Cameron Monaghan) learned in childhood that drinking was a good coping mechanism. The shocking death of a druggie university friend, Darya (Carolyn Baeulmer) and her depressing Soviet funeral is the catalyst for Zelma and Sergei to have a depressing Soviet wedding. Later on Zelma has a hasty second wedding, to a Swede named Bo (Matthew Modine, who also produced) that she met on a cultural artistic exchange. The marriages fail for different, excellent reasons, but it takes Zelma a while to learn her lessons.

Biology has some ideas as to why. So do the bird-women, who are the manifestation of the cultural messages that society sends its children about love, happiness, interpersonal relationships and power. But by trapping Zelma between her own neurons and the patriarchy, the story comes dangerously close to implying she has no free will. Between Sergei and Zelma the problem is Sergei’s contempt for other people, starting in his correcting how she peppers the soup and ending in violence. Between Bo and Zelma the issue is Bo’s lack of sexual interest, to which Zelma retaliates through depressive blankness and/or verbal abuse. But while the movie draws a direct line from the mistreatment Zelma endured in elementary school to how she behaved in her marriages, life is not usually quite so clean-cut. It is also somehow demeaning to see a work of art, made by a woman, about a woman’s complex, international, multilingual life, imply that she had little agency over any of it.

The movie’s raw animation style, to which Ms. Bauman also contributed heavily, fits the mood of the story very well, with the expressionism inherent in animation expressing Zelma’s emotions much better than she could ever articulate. But its newest achievement is listing 1,685 backers at the start as coproducers, and then listing their names in alphabetical full by donation level (and font size) in the end credits. At the very least, it’s wonderful to see an idiosyncratic movie about a woman’s life choices get so much support. But it’s so depressing that it doesn’t know how to appreciate what all those choices add up to.

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