Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 10, 2022 2:25 pm 
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A COUPLE (Frederick Wiseman) gets a 4/5 in Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review, which kindly summarized at Venice this fictionalized, dramatic feature film of only 64 minutes from the documentarian of normally epic length. Nathalie Boutefeu, also coauthor of the script, stars as the wife of Leo Tolstoy with "a series of yearning monologues" (as Bradshaw puts it) "which have been adapted from her diaries and letters." This is Wiseman's first narrative feature in 20 years. His last such, the 2002 film, was similar, from a Russian (or Yiddish-Ukrainian) source but spoken by a woman actress in French and an hour long. But it was a filming of his own Paris stage production of La dernière lettre. Both seem to reflect that though Wiseman is still listed on IMDb as a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he resides in Paris. The new film was filmed in France, in French, in a privately owned seaside garden on the French island Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany.

A Couple is Tolstoy's wife Sophia Tolstaya speaking, and dramatizes excerpts from her journal. It is a kind of letter too, because it begins with actress Natalie Boutefou as Sophia, saying, "The first thing I feel like doing today is to write to you, Leo." She explains that they got into the habit of writing each other every day even though they lived in the same house. She goes on about how her husband, the great writer, crushed her with his power, oppressed her with his jealousy, embarrassed her in front of guests. How hard she worked, copying and recopying his manuscripts (she reportedly wrote out all of War and Peace two or three times).

The monologue addressed to Leo continues, with things he said in his diary, and more about their repressed, intense, frustrating relationship which demanded so much of her and gave so little back. More too about his neurotic fear of death. Then there are more general statements: "Even the most sincere and honest of us always wears a mask and hides what we are deep inside. . .Most people live as if they are blind. . .Life shrinks and dwindles." But she is still talking about Tolstoy. His being a creative giant made him a shrunken man, a twisted husband with not much left to give - who yet at times spoke of great love.

She describes a suicidal moment when she entered their freezing bath house and dreamed of getting sick and dying, leaving Leo to take care of the children in her place. She speaks of his infidelity, and how it changed their feelings toward each other, but then they make up and things are good for a long time.

This review of a marriage is intense, painful, partly beautiful, emotional, but also somehow abstract. One might like to hear from Leo - though she often quotes him here - speaking about this relationship for himself; but of course that also would not work because as she says at the outset, his power smothered and dominated him, and the need is for her to break free, even if she does so only to talk about nothing but him.

Nathalie Boutefeu is plain, but elegant. Wearing braided hair, she is dressed severely but handsomely in a white blouse and black velvet, sometimes a flowered shawl with a black field. There is a coolness but also a sweetness about her, restraint but also a smile in the eyes. She speaks softly and quietly. All her monologue is outdoors. Sometimes she sits or stands, sometimes she is is walking, by rocks, tide pools, bushes and grass. There are memorable closeups of termites swarming on a log and big ants, and beautiful blooming flowers. Breaks in the monologue are filled by acres of green, bramble or trees or great rocks, with crashing sea at the start.

It would not be an exaggeration to say this is a beautiful film, but its recollection-in-sadness mood isn' terribly moving. Bradshaw introduces this - rather badly titled - film as "a belletristic homage to the most famously unhappy marriage in literary history." He points out the setting is pure invention; the Tolstoy estate, Yasnaya Polnaya, was nowhere near the water. The situation is of a kind of sweet imprisonment, one might say. Not mentioned is the sweet trap of being married to one of the greatest writers in history, the reflected glory, despite the sometime psychological mistreatment. Because Tolstoy "at least sometimes" loved Sophia she was "doomed to bear the burden," Bradshaw puts it, "of looking after the house and grounds" (though surely there were caretakers to tend to the details of that), "seeing to their many children" (and while she seems to mention only two here, there were thirteen!), as well as "dealing with Tolstoy’s many guests and insufferable fan-worshipping admirers and acolytes, and of course, helping him with his work." But except for the caretaking and children and help with the work, Bradshaw is filling in details not specified here. As said, this is a film that's beautiful, sad, a little abstract. One sees the inexhaustible, now ninety-two-year-old Wiseman straining a bit to bring something to life when he is, at heart, the cool, meticulous observer - and that's a very different thing. Marshall Schaffer pointed out in Playlist that A Couple "never quite manages to transcend its origins as a precious pandemic project." No matter how beautiful it is, it remains static.

A Couple/Un couple, 64 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2, 2022, also showing at DMZ (South Korea) Sept. 25 and the NYFF Oct. 2. It opens Oct. 19 in France, and In the US released by Wiseman's signature Zipporah Films at Film Forum Nov.11. Metacritic rating 73%.


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