Going into 2022’s iteration of the Tribeca Film Festival, I would never have guessed that an indie animated film would make its way into not only one of my favorites from the fest, but also become one of the best movies of the year. Seven years in the making, Signe Baumane’s sophomore effort, My Love Affair with Marriage, is a girl-power masterpiece that musically captures the wildness of coming-of-age femininity and the tumultuous nature of adult relationships. Alternatively, the film could easily be shown in an adult sex education classroom with how descriptive it is, and I mean this as the biggest compliment one could imagine. Featuring shadowy and expressive animation, My Love Affair with Marriage may be the beginning of my own love affair with the works of filmmaker Signe Baumane.
As the film starts, off on 1970s Sakhalin Island, Zelma (Dagmara Dominczyk) comes into the world. A saucy and descriptive voice turns out to be that of Biology (Michele Pawk) itself, connected to literal cells, who narrates informative asides throughout the entirety. Juxtaposed against little adolescent Zelma going on her way throughout town and hanging out in trees with cats, the audience is treated to a colorful description about how Zelma was conceived. The script breaks it all the way down to the very “chromosomal composition of Zelma,” dives into the specificity of sperm cells, and lays out the full pregnancy process. It can be a lot to take in at once, and it only helps that all the muchness is buoyed by exciting, varied animation style and a banging soundtrack. Young Zelma thinks the world is a fairy tale.
The film is divided into three sections, complete with a prelude, and etches out a perfectly satisfying spiritual and emotional journey. Everything about Zelma is so endlessly relatable. Writing from the male perspective, I obviously did not relate to certain aspects of her character, yet the outsider angle makes it accessible to all. Cartoonish fun is mixed in with the darkness of reality. There are deeply tragic moments, but beauty and fun take center stage. Songs that ear-worm into one’s soul are planted at vital intervals and life events for Zelma. Will love solve all of Zelma’s problems? The cherubic singing seems to indicate that men are always right, and over every shadow is a rainbow. 23 songs are planted throughout My Love Affair with Marriage, and nearly all of them made me smile or giggle.
The roots of Zelma’s character can be traced all the way back to second grade, when she lived in Latvia. Animalistic impulses are portrayed in this medium and personified literally into fierce felines and exaggerated silliness. Zelma first experiences the earliest signs of love or admiration during this time, transfixed by the green eyes of a childhood boy. This made me reflect on my own first crush, though I am not quite sure it was at that early of an age. Each stage of Zelma’s life made me want to hold up a mirror to my own behavior as I progressed in age. There are bullies, mean twisted moments that require one to age years ahead of their true age, and harsh reality checks. One constant (and true cliche) remains: life is constantly full of surprises.
Gender is an important theme of My Love Affair with Marriage as well. Zelma is taunted for not “being a girl,” which of course also has its own song sung by a bitchy queen bee. 14-year-old curiosities give way to the horniness of age 16 and beyond. Of course, this makes room for Biology to prattle on about estrogen hormones, fertility, and endorphin releases; every moment of Biology’s womanly sass elevates the material. In this category is where most of My Love Affair with Marriage could be vital in classrooms. It almost feels tailor-made with community viewing in mind, where it will no doubt benefit for the shared experience.
Marriage is part of the film’s title, and every area post-childhood is a long stretch of longing for Zelma to find her happy ending. Reality is not as simple as a happy ending, reflective of Zelma’s experiences. Losing her virginity is unsatisfying and empty, yet even this gives way to the first of many marriage proposals. What path will Zelma choose to take? One waits in anxious excitement as the movie dips its toes into female inferiority topics, toxic relationships, alcoholism, language barriers, divorce, and the importance of the past. Zelma’s journey is the audience’s journey too, and it is certainly Signe Baumane’s little way of channeling her own experiences into a bold artistic vision.
The volatile drunk, Sergei (Cameron Monaghan, Shameless, Gotham), comes into Zelma’s life like a wrecking ball that makes her shut out her friends and the rest of the world at large. Bo (Matthew Modine) is a gentle soul who views Zelma through a heart-shaped lens as they exchange “microbial clouds” through their tongues. Bo hides a secret that completely reshapes the entire narrative of the movie. The moment this revelation drops, I fell completely head over heels with this wonderful adult animation.
Equally impressive is the actual making of My Love Affair with Marriage. Real wooden sets were constructed by hand and photographed, then Signe herself animated her 2D characters. Guided with only the script and vocal track, Signe does not storyboard before developing it. All the sets are covered in paper-mâché, then meticulously painted. This appears to be a pain-staking process, and can be further explored on the film’s website. Suffice to say, real pencil-drawn animation elevates this in every way. It gives definition to the movement, and sings with an elevated quality pumping through its DNA. Signe then has to make sure the animations she draws line up with the sets. Pencil shading and colors displaying this level of detail are enough to earn a round of applause. The Biology segments are done by animation artist Yajun Shi, which makes sense considering how complimentary stylized they feel to Signe’s naturalism.
For those who have more contained ideas about animated films, My Love Affair with Marriage will doubtless make them think twice about the medium’s endless possibilities. This is a deeply funny, socially conscious sharp satire with heart. The instant it concluded, I wanted to follow Zelma’s life again, with all its highs and lows. Life has many extremes, and this simple story reflects the definition of love and its soaring heights. The ending is filled with infinite possibilities, and in its beauty, My Love Affair with Marriage is ultimately a snapshot of fierce emotional truth.
My Love Affair with Marriage screened at 2022’s Tribeca Film Festival.