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(Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of My Love Affair with Marriage. It opens October 6, 2023 in NYC before expanding in the upcoming weeks. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

A majestic mixture of varying emotional tones and animation styles—with musical interludes thrown in for good measure—that comes together in raucous fusion, Signe Bauman’s My Love Affair with Marriage delights throughout its 108-minute runtime. A loosely autobiographical take on the director’s own early life, the movie is somehow as much science seminar as personal history. Rarely do we see such near-manic creative fervent come together in as perfect a harmony.

Right from the start, the Latvian-born Bauman (Rocks in My Pockets) takes us on a journey simultaneously geographical, spiritual, and sexual. Her recurring Greek chorus of three sirens launches into a song about marriage destiny just after we have been treated to a brief lecture on how sperm enters the fallopian tubes and how genetics affect brain development, all of it in the wake of a zoom in from high up that lands on the island of Sakhalin, where protagonist Zelma spends her early childhood. This opening prelude is entitled, appropriately, “Inception” (the following sections will have thematically germane names, too). Cheeky, smart, and wildly funny, this first part sets up all the joyful techniques that will ensue.

From there, we follow Zelma—voiced by Dagmara Dominczyk (Bottoms)—to Riga (capital of Latvia), where she grows up initially feeling like an outcast, so (at first) free is she of societal convention, raised as she was in nature, without much supervision. Bauman uses the visual metaphor of Zelma transforming into a cat as a representation of her true self, one that she will sublimate in order to fit in. It won’t be until the final chapter, in her late 20s, two marriages and two divorces under her belt, that the adult Zelma will rediscover her inner feline. Between Riga and then is a difficult (if always engaging, to us) odyssey.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Zelma constantly confronts various patriarchal ways of oppressing women. Sometimes the enforcers of these cultural norms are women, sometimes men. Everyone loses in the patriarchy, including her Swedish gender-bending second husband, Bo (Matthew Modine, The Hippopotamus). Before him, there is the much more typically gruff and entitled Sergei (Cameron Monaghan, Anthem of a Teenage Prophet).

Vibrant does not come close to describing the effect of Bauman’s endlessly insightful and comic look at what makes the human animal tick. Always, there is the commentary from our chorus and from the narrator of the biology tutorials (Michele Pawk, her voice always on the edge of irony, yet still sincere). These latter interruptions pop up whenever Zelma is on the verge of strong feelings, be they sentimental or carnal, cinematically complementing the accompanying songs. On top of all of this is some very sharp and witty social and political satire, much of it directed at the since-defunct Soviet Union.

Bauman animates all but the lectures; those are by Yajun Shi. The music is from composer Kristian Sensini (All Against All). Everyone delivers, from actors to crew. Their energy is palpable in every frame.

In the end, though we have laughed our way through much of the movie, the result is nonetheless a serious rumination on feminist ideas that never feels like a sermon. Zelma’s growth develops from hard-won wisdom, each step of her maturation beautifully sketched on screen. She learns to love herself—the most important lesson of all—and we love her right back.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

Signe Bauman; My Love Affair with Marriage movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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