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‘A Couple’ Review: Frederick Wiseman’s Pungent Foray into Fiction



Actor Nathalie Boutefeu perambulates around an exquisite garden in full bloom, reciting a monologue in French she cowrote with her director, the words drawn from writings by Sophia Tolstoy, the wife of novelist Leo Tolstoy (whose own letters are also quoted here). The result is an expressive and moving portrait of a tempestuous marriage, one told with elan that feels rich in feeling even if its entire budget probably wouldn’t have covered the cost of croissants on an average film shoot in France.

That bald description might suggest it’s a quirky programming choice for the main competition at the Venice Film Festival unless you knew that the film’s co-writer and director is 92-year-old Frederick Wiseman, the American-born auteur who lives mainly in France now and has directed nearly 50 films in a storied career. There’s something typically puckish and surprising that at this late, great stage of his career Wiseman should be making something that’s such an outlier in aesthetic terms as this.

A Couple

The Bottom Line

Small in scale, but rich in feeling.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Nathalie Boutefeu
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Screenwriters: Frederick Wiseman, Nathalie Boutefeu, based on diary entries and letters written by Leo and Sophia Tolstoy

1 hour 4 minutes.

For a start, at 64 minutes, A Couple is a mere slip of a thing, at least compared to some of Wiseman’s expansive, multiple-hour-long works, such as the 359-minute Near Death (1989) or Belfast, Maine (245 mins, 1999) and At Berkeley (244 mins, 2013). A Couple is also one of only two films Wiseman has directed that consists almost entirely of an actor playing a role, the other being The Last Letter from 2002, a filmed record of a stage play he directed in Paris that was adapted from the Holocaust-themed novel by Vasiliy Grossman. Normally, his films are documentaries and just have people “playing” themselves as it were — or shots of performers playing roles on stage in the course of their work in the movies Wiseman has made about entertainment institutions like ballet and theater companies. Mind you, he describes his films sometimes as “reality fictions,” so this one is just a few degrees closer to the fiction end of the spectrum.

Nevertheless, even like some of Wiseman’s longest films, A Couple feels like it’s the right length to tell the story it needs to tell, and the result is a strangely pregnant and weighty hour or so of entertainment, thanks in part to Boutefeu’s intense, galvanic performance. The film’s sole performer, she recites her lines with that academic precision that French stage actors are so known for, the diction pitch-perfect but never losing touch with the emotional import of the words.

Dressed in simple long, black period clothes with a Russian-style floral shawl draped over her shoulders at times (there’s no credit for a costume designer, so presumably they’re all the actor’s own), she is first seen in a small room, writing on a sheet of parchment with an old-fashioned black crayon, underscoring the epistolary origins of the material. Mostly her gaze rests off to the side in an unfocused way, as if Sophia were talking to herself, which makes the moments when she looks straight at the camera with piercing pale eyes all the more striking.

This scene and another set in an interior bookend the film. The rest mostly observes Boutefeu’s Sophia walking, talking and sometimes sitting reflectively in tranquil places in Jardin La Boulaye, a private garden on Belle-Île-en-Mer, an island off the coast of Brittany. There are also shots of waves surging around the rocky cliffs and crags of a beach which look remarkably like the beach seen in Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The different landscapes seen here aptly reflect the different modalities of the Tolstoy marriage as described in the monologue, a mixture of stormy, tidal uproars interspersed with stretches of domestic tranquility.

Wiseman and DP John Davey give the macro lenses a workout with abundant close-ups of blossoms, including lushly speckled rhododendrons, tumbling cascades of fleabane, gaudy gorse in such profusion you can practically smell it wafting off the screen. The sensuality of the floral imagery, coupled with Sophia’s circumlocutory description of her marriage’s intense flares of passion (she’s too much of a lady to talk directly about carnal relations) represents a reminder that flowers are basically plants’ sex organs. They get to stand in for all the hot torpid sex the couple clearly must have enjoyed (they had 13 children after all, nine of whom survived childhood) when they weren’t arguing with each other.

Indeed, the portrait that emerges from the words is of a marriage between an intelligent 19th-century woman who maybe didn’t quite grasp what she was letting herself in for when she married the mercurial Tolstoy. At the risk of making a reckless diagnosis given I’m no psychiatrist, Leo sounds like someone suffering from a bipolar disorder, prone to sudden mood changes, alternately intensely affectionate and then suddenly jealous, indifferent or even scornful of his long-suffering, bewildered wife Anyone who has ever been in a drama-packed relationship of any length will sympathize with Sophia’s torment, confusion and above all, visible exhaustion, especially if they’ve been with someone who is really married to their work.

Sophia quotes letters from Leo where he talks of how the fictional worlds he lives in are more real to him than the one he actually lives in with her, which galls her even if she’s too meek and battered down by his patriarchal bullying. Were this a story about a contemporary couple, many audience members would be rooting for her to leave him, but of course that was an almost unthinkable choice at the time Sophia was living. After all, divorce sure didn’t work out for the heroine of one of Tolstoy’s greatest works, Anna Karenina.

While the emotional content is delivered adeptly here and is universally comprehensible, some viewers might lament that the film seems so very distant from its Slavic roots, apart from that aforementioned shawl. There’s really nothing Russian about the landscape, the clothes, and least of all the French language spoken here, which all feels distilled down from the source to produce a singular but pungent essence.

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