Signe Baumane’s films are deeply personal endeavors, peppered with enough humor to grant them an easy charm. Importantly, her animation is distinct, inspired by Stasys Eidrigevičius and Jan Švankmajer, but most readily identifiable as something in the lineage of Bill Plympton. Her works are clearly her own, though, and that was never more clear than in her 2014 debut feature film Rocks in My Pockets, where she tackled depression and suicide as it pertained to five different women in her family. In her follow-up feature My Love Affair with Marriage, she opts for a fictional story that nevertheless culls from events and lessons she’s learned from her two marriages — relationships she has stated had “collaps[ed] spectacularly.” With this knowledge in tow, we follow protagonist Zelma (Dagmara Domińczyk) from her conception to her late-’20s, and the scope is large: Baumane aims for no less than capturing how one’s life is shaped by societal factors, biology, and more through the experiences of this woman. The ambition is palpable.
The problem with Baumane’s films, however, is that they’re easier to appreciate than to feel passionately about. She has a tendency to rely on voiceover narration, which becomes increasingly tedious when tied up with her love for overly direct explanations. My Love Affair with Marriage features numerous examples of how gender roles play out in our daily lives, and relates to prevailing ideologies regarding marriage as some sort of noble end goal meant to satiate everyone on earth. Zelma recognizes the different behaviors girls and boys should have at a young age, then loses her virginity as a teenager, and marries twice to men she eventually divorces. There’s a lot of ground covered, but much of the film’s overlong 108-minute runtime is filled with banal observations and a painfully direct script. “This was not the marriage I imagined — I am not happy,” we hear at one point, and this line represents the full extent to which any emotional weight is placed. It often feels like we’re moving from one life-altering moment to the next without letting the gravity of each situation resonate. It’s a very procedural, clinical film.
Beyond the frequently undramatic line deliveries, My Love Affair with Marriage suffers because each person we encounter functions as little more than a cipher. Baumane aims for a more universal story here, and the little care she puts into characterization makes it challenging to feel invested in anyone, including Zelma — she, after all, is emblematic of an everywoman and the struggles all women face. Even worse is how literal the animation can be: “A woman without makeup is like a rose without the morning dew,” explains her second ex-husband, Bo. We then see that exact image rendered on screen. Even when Baumane’s writing shoots for poeticism, the film’s dearth of imagination sullies it. The animation itself, when not merely blandly literalizing the voiceover, is often enjoyable — mixing hand-drawn illustrations with papier-mâché sculptures—but it’s often a matter of appreciating the craftsmanship of the form more than its utility.
Throughout the film, Baumane utilizes sequences in which a talking neuron (Michele Pawk) explains the science behind every emotion and inclination, making dry references to neurotransmitters and the pituitary gland. It both looks and feels like an above average educational film, and while it initially scans as a neat concept that aims to paint how societal expectations can become wrapped up with biological impulses to cause people to think and act in certain ways, it’s alarming how frequently these scenes arrive. At worst, they cause a major disruption to the story’s flow, leaving Zelma’s life feeling almost secondary to Baumane’s unceasing desire to explain why everything is happening from this more unconsidered viewpoint.
But the most confounding aspect of My Love Affair with Marriage arrives in its final 10-minute stretch, wherein Zelma’s now-ex Bo reveals to her that he likes to dress as a woman. Baumane indicates in press materials that her own ex-husband was “gender-bending,” so this is clearly drawing from personal experience, but there’s a peculiar self-satisfied air to this narrative revelation, with Zelma recognizing that she can and will accept this person, and relating her own experiences with Bo’s. As the final act in the film, it seems to want to demonstrate how much every person is continually learning and evolving, but it feels both insincere and haphazardly inserted. As with much of the film, its ideas are too shallow to be stimulating, and both its scientific passages and animation styles try but fail to paper over that reality.
DIRECTOR: Signe Baumane; CAST: (voices) Dagmara Domińczyk, Matthew Modine, Stephen Lang, Cameron Monaghan; DISTRIBUTOR: 8 Above; IN THEATERS: October 6; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.