Have you ever been on a date and wondered what the other person’s thinking? Have you ever watched a rom-com and pondered what it is that women truly want? Have you ever asked obvious questions? Then have I got the film for you! In all seriousness, it’s a legitimate issue that tons of people have when it comes to love and romance, trying to figure out how it all works. The attraction, the power dynamics, sometimes even the sheer mechanics of it all. God knows I do. So you can imagine my joy at seeing My Love Affair with Marriage, a highly innovative animated musical that attempts to bring some clarity to the problem in both figurative and literal terms.
A co-production of Latvia, Luxembourg, and the United States, this is, at its core, a film about what makes a woman tick, with a focus on the social and emotional stakes of relationships, as well as a clever exploration of the actual biology and chemistry of it all. The film made its way around the festival circuit over the last year-plus, including receiving a jury prize at last year’s Annecy Film Festival, before finally getting its commercial release and qualifying run for Academy eligibility last week.
Dagmara Dominczyk (recently seen in a supporting role in Bottoms) stars as Zelma, a young girl born in eastern Russia and who grows up in Soviet Latvia. A rambunctious free spirit as a child, she’s brought up through outdated paradigms about religion and gender roles, including the idea that women should be subservient to men and that marriage and children are the highest aspirations for her sex. As she grows, she has to balance the traditional expectations for her life with her actual bodily changes, leading to a lot of confusion and self-doubt.
The presentation of this is off the charts. First, from a scripting and dialogue perspective, Zelma’s conflict is always kept simple, effective, and inherently relatable. When she gets her first crush, her swooning is written in wonderfully poetic terms for the purposes of an internal monologue, but outwardly all she ever says to the boy is, “Hi,” which he casually ignores, perfectly illustrating the dichotomy between extroversion and introversion. Throughout her journey, as she searches for her soul mate, she plays over scenarios in her head as she receives multiple marriage proposals, each one just a bit different. Even on a technical level, there’s a cheeky degree of nuance, particularly as it relates to one of her paramours, an artist named Bo (voiced by Matthew Modine, who also acts as an Executive Producer). All of the dialogue we hear is in English, but as Zelma is Latvian and doesn’t naturally speak it, when they talk, her speech patterns change, slowing down and simplifying the syntax while affecting a heavier accent. It creates a language barrier to demonstrate her struggles without interfering with the audience’s understanding of the proceedings.
Then there’s the music. Composer Kristian Sensini wrote the score as well as 24 original songs, all of which lay out the conflict in the most bare and blunt terms. A Greek chorus of nuns that double as harpies (Iluta Alsberga, Ieva Katkovska, and Kristīne Pastare, known collectively as Trio Limonāde) constantly intrude on the story to emphasize Zelma’s cultural obligations. Similarly, a popular girl at Zelma’s school (Erica Schroeder) sings a show-stopping number about how you get boys to like you by being pretty, empty-headed, and meak. The message that keeps getting hammered in is how Zelma is meant to feel like everything is her fault, that her lot in life is to serve men, and to abandon any semblance of individualism. It’s like America Ferrera’s speech in Barbie, but demonstrated through visuals and song, and kept within the regressive context of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. There are more hopeful and uplifting numbers as well, some of them quite funny in addition to being insightful.
It’s all capped off with the animation style. This is brilliant. There are essentially two convergent techniques. Most of the main action takes place with flat, 2D models created through traditional pencil sketch and cel-shading, placed on 3D stop-motion backgrounds. The visual metaphor is fantastic, showing Zelma and everyone around her as thin snippets of a much larger world. This was spearheaded by director Signe Baumane, helming her second feature after 2014’s Rocks in My Pockets. Both films use a very surrealist design aesthetic, reminiscent of Bill Plympton (who is thanked in the credits).
This is supplemented by several cutaways to a character called Biology (Michele Pawk), an anthropomorphic brain cell, who explains and illustrates the neurological and hormonal responses that inform Zelma’s emotional state (and to a lesser extent, those of her eventual husbands), quite literally reducing the idea of love to brain chemistry. These segments were animated entirely in Photoshop and After Effects by Chinese artist Yajun Shi completely separate from the core production.
All of these elements combine to answer in the most creative terms the age-old question of how to please a woman, or really any potential lover. You have to take into account her experiences and environment and adapt to them, provide comfort and safety on a deep emotional level, and trigger the right balance of neurons firing at just the right time to initiate physical attraction. It seems daunting and highly improbable, and it is, but it’s also weirdly uplifting and inspirational. The very first Biology section, concerning Zelma’s conception, goes into painstaking detail about how long the odds are of a sperm even fertilizing an egg. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but it serves as a thesis statement for how we’re literally built to continually grow and persevere from the molecular level the instant we’re created, meaning no matter how bleak things may seem, there’s always hope. Honest to God I wish this kind of stuff was available to me when I took sex education. It would have been so much more informative and life-affirming than what I usually got, which was along the lines of, “IF YOU HAVE SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE SHE’LL GET PREGNANT THE FIRST TIME, AND YOU’LL BE STUCK WITH A BABY AS A TEENAGER, AND YOU’LL PROBABLY GET AIDS!”
But this isn’t just a long overdue lesson in the inner workings of the human body. This is a decidedly human story, and Zelma’s self-discovery over the course of 23 years is heartwarming in the extreme, even when things go horribly wrong. We’ve all felt that insecurity about making friends, feeling invisible to someone you’re attracted to, learning hard lessons about the lies people tell, and figuring out what your talents in life really are. When Zelma loses her virginity to an older man (Stephen Lang), it devastates her at first when he never calls back, but it also inspires her to pursue art as a career, as it was a genuine affinity for painting that led to their connection. Realizing her childhood crush was just some bully’s lackey makes her rethink how she assesses first impressions. The tragic loss of her college friend (Carolyn Baeumler) serves as a poignant reminder that our time on this planet is relatively brief, and that dwelling on the things she cannot change isn’t worth it. An abusive relationship with a co-dependent chauvinist (Cameron Monaghan) teaches her the folly of the domestic fantasy.
It all comes together so well to convey such a valuable message. Love is a wonderful thing, perhaps the most wonderful thing in the world. But it’s also random, messy, and complicated. What we feel in our heart actually comes from our heads, and what we think in our minds is the result of millions of unconscious calculations and involuntary bodily responses triggered by a million-to-one proposition that led to our very creation. Everything else we put into the equation is of our own making, be it as individuals or as a society at large. Once that’s understood, a world of possibilities can open up. My Love Affair with Marriage is a great example of all of these ideas, expressed in a way that shows just what the truly creative can do.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How hard was it to find your own identity growing up? What other systems could the Biology cartoon help explain? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!