My Love Affair with Marriage is an ironic but absolutely on-point look at how societal expectations shape a woman’s identity and self-worth.
What is it exactly that makes us strive to achieve certain goals in life, but that makes us feel so unhappy when we do? Why do we feel so incomplete even after we’ve found our soulmate, gotten married, and gone through all the steps of society’s version of a normal, happy life? And in the midst of all these confusing, conflicting rules of behaviour, how can we possibly fulfill our own destinies while preserving a sense of self-worth? In her semi-autobiographical animated film My Love Affair with Marriage, Latvian-born director, writer, artist and animator Signe Baumane (Rocks in My Pockets) attempts to answer these and many more questions as she takes us on a journey with Zelma (Dagmara Domińczyk, of Succession), a young girl whom we follow into adulthood. As Zelma navigates life, love, sex and relationships, she tries to reconcile what she’s been taught about her role in society – that is, to be a “good girl,” a submissive woman, and a supportive wife – with her actual experience and desires, and learns to love herself in the process.
As Zelma grows up to realise that what she’s been told about what’s expected of her doesn’t match her own findings about the world, a Greek chorus of Latvian women – whom the director describes as representing the “internalized voices of society” – sings to her, urging her to conform and be just as “weak,” unaccomplished and reliant on a man as society needs her to be. But Zelma keeps experiencing and examining the world, and, as we watch her navigate anything from high school and puberty to first love, sex, marriage and divorce and process traumatic events and unexpected turns, a friendly neuron inside her brain (voiced by Michele Pawk) clues us in as to what’s going on the inside, explaining the neurochemical changes in her body that provoke certain feelings and reactions. And so, Zelma’s experiences blend with our own, and we soon realise that change needs to happen in the expectations we place on human beings of all genders and identities, starting with the romantic ideals that a woman can only be happy if she’s validated by a man, a man’s sense of self-worth comes from a woman supporting him while he goes off to save the world, and marriage is the solution to everything.
There’s a lot to take in in My Love Affair with Marriage, as its covers so many important, complex subjects during its nearly two-hour runtime, and the everpresent, soothing voiceover (by the aforementioned friendly neuron, as well as Zelma herself) and occasional song ask you to pay close attention to each and every explanation, which ranges from the effects of high school bullying to neurological responses involving the amygdala, serotonin levels, the hypothalamus and many more parts of our brain you might not have heard of before. All of this affects the film’s pace, as these interesting but also frequent and information-dense educational moments often interrupt Zelda’s story, making the film feel longer than it is. Yet, in between all of that, there are also many ironic, witty song lyrics that are bound to make you giggle, and an all-too-relatable story that will answer questions you didn’t even know you had, explaining the dynamics behind your own experiences and urging you to love and accept yourself just as you are.
Zelma is a girl whose body and personality was born out of “a unique and unrepeatable genetic combination” but who soon learns that, like other girls her age, she too has to behave according to a very specific set of rules if she wants to thrive and survive, starting from how she would remain “incomplete” until she found a man who loved her, and “patiently waited” until her soulmate married her. And so, Zelma goes to school, where she learns that girls don’t fight, don’t run and don’t react to bullying, can’t be too short or too tall, and that ignorance is a girl’s bliss, so she’d better not be too good at school. “Any form of attention is the right form of attention,” sings the Greek chorus: “no one cares how you feel: all that matters is how you look,” and Zelma learns to “emulate, imitate, simulate,” taking in many forms of abuse without reacting and forgetting about her self respect, determined to conform with everyone else.
As she grows up and approaches adulthood, new challenges and new rules emerge, and Zelma learns that her aim is to marry well, save herself for her husband, and keep the marriage alive, whatever it takes. Not only are boys the ultimate reward, but spending time with accomplished men can also make her a better person, as some of their talents will rub off on her – a woman whose duties range from making babies and cooking to literally being the glue that holds the marriage together, but who can become so much more if she’s validated by a man. And so, Zelma continues her training to become “a girl who hopes the boy will like,” until she eventually finds one, and… discovers that relationships aren’t exactly fairy tale material.
These are only a few of the themes tackled by a film that delves into subjects such as gender stereotypes, societal expectations, conformity and toxic relationships, but also trauma and abuse, and even more specific issues, such as the abandonment issues that arise during our loved one’s absence, the pressure we feel to be submissive and forgiving, the kind of control that can be felt by pursuing men we don’t like, the desire to change our better half that emerges when we’ve been married for a while, the “dissolution of self” that can be experienced when on drugs, and even how alcohol can be used as a cure to neverending anxiety caused by our parents’ conflicting signals. It’s clear that director Signe Baumane has done a lot of research not only on the science behind our behaviour, but also on universal psychological dynamics depicted in the film and their effects on our mental health and sense of self-worth, so much so that My Love Affair with Marriage could very well act as a manual on how to recognise and overcome cultural biases, fall in and out of love while preserving our own identity, and ultimately be our own person without needing to be validated by anyone else.
Not only that, but the animated style is truly impressive, combining multiple techniques to create a truly unique world. The characters are approached with sheer originality – not only the neuron and the Greek chorus but also Zelma herself, whose wildest, most repressed side is represented by a feral cat that she sometimes turns into. But the worldbuilding is even more distinctive, as the characters themselves are hand-drawn, with shadows sketched-in, but the environment is made of hand-made sets and papier-mâché sculptures, and Zelma’s imagination is depicted by using yet another style – 2-D drawings with colorful backgrounds. Not only does this approach make the film more memorable and immersive, but it also makes it more grounded in reality, as the characters might be fictional but the hand-made environments are as real as Zelma’s experiences, which aren’t always pleasant.
My Love Affair with Marriage is an incredibly clever, meaningful watch, so much so that it almost feels like a therapy session for both the director and the viewer. It was made with a very specific target audience in mind, and it will feel just as personal to that target audience as it does to the filmmaker. At the same time, it might also alienate other, less woke audiences because of how much information is crammed into it, which is a shame, as those are the people who need to see it the most. Perhaps the film would have worked better in an episodic format, which would have enabled viewers to take in little information at a time, making its final message of self-love all the more impactful and satisfying. That said, these are only minor flaws in a technically and thematically impressive film that couldn’t be more relevant, and that’s an absolute must-watch at the Tribeca film festival.
My Love Affair with Marriage premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 11, 2022 and will open at The Quad in NYC on October 6, 2023, and at Laemmle Glendale in LA on October 13.