Co-writer-director Frederick Wiseman’s second narrative feature in 20 years, A Couple, is basically just a solo performance by its lead and fellow co-writer Nathalie Boutefeu as Sophia Tolstava, the wife of Leo Tolstoy, delivering monologues from journals, diaries, and letters. Yet this visually poetically executed study offers a lot of emotional depth, beauty, and grace. An artful showcase for Wiseman’s directing skills, the film’s use of nature and naturalistic cinematography help convey the emotional tour de force. With the recent release of Inside, one-handers have proven to be very difficult to pull off, and A Couple never overstays its welcome and wraps just over the 60-minute mark.
The original screenplay by Wiseman and Boutefeu, which consists mainly of monologues and luminous cinematography, is influenced by Sophia Tolstava’s own personal diaries. The film is exquisitely shot by cinematographer John Davey, who stages the action of Bouteefu walking through idyllic gardens and forests, and observing beaches and ponds. While the film was certainly produced and shot during COVID restrictions, it was shot on Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, France. It might not be set in Russia and it’s in French, but the setting and creative decisions work well in capturing Sophia’s personal grievances and inner turmoil.
Courtesy Zipporah Films
The film’s setting allows for Boutefeu to channel Sophia’s angst and spirit. It also becomes a compelling portrait of a reflection piece for an emotionally vulnerable woman who is reminiscing about both fond and hurtful memories that are confined within her psyche. It was certainly a complex marriage, one that carried both joy and misery, and we feel that with every word of dialogue that is expertly delivered by Boutefeu. You begin to learn the vulnerabilities and emotional hardship Sophia had to endure with Leo, the amount of detachment, deception, and infidelity paid a toll on her. Both Wiseman and Boutefeu deliver sincere insights on the cost of being married to such a brilliant mind. While we never see Leo onscreen, we feel his presence throughout the film, almost as if he’s a spirit lingering in the frame, at the very least in the psyche of Sophia.
A Couple becomes a restrained exploration of suppressed emotions and loss. It’s revealed that Sophia didn’t have the energy to combat Leo’s issues at any point of the marriage. Even if she did, it would be like talking to a brick wall, given just how determined Leo was to his work, and how vain he was at times during the marriage, which is revealed to have had violent arguments and many other forms of emotional suffering . These are Sophia’s perceptions, and Boutefeu is given a substantial amount of creative freedom to interpret the words, and the emotive performance allows for greater context in terms of finding empathy, guilt, and many other implications. She also feels remorse as her children were emotionally neglected and ignored by Leo during their marriage. It’s also revealed how competitive Leo was with her talents, which he compromised and undermined as their marriage grew. There was a huge age gap in the marriage between Leo and Sophia as well; Leo, who was 38, selected her when she was 18. This was more for him to feel his own ego so he could feel superior and wiser in their relationship. Yes, egocentrism goes far within artists, as Todd Field recently explored in Tar. Whereas Tar was explored and seen through actions, A Couple is informed and revealed through words. Both remain deeply psychological in their own ways.
Courtesy Zipporah Films
What would sound rather dull on paper, never dull in Wiseman’s execution here. For starters, the filmmaker is 92, but it feels as if it was just made by a young 25-year old fresh out of film school due to its artistry and spirit. There is nothing rusty in Wiseman’s presentation. Using mostly static shots, a wide lens, and meticulous compositions, there is always just as much vivid attention paid by longtime DP John Vavey to the background as there is to Sophia. Stylistically, the use of nature, wildlife, and waves gives rich artistry to the monologues, and they are rather utilized to deliver a more liberating feeling rather than confined. Even though the diaries are spoken aloud, and it’s a one-woman chamber piece, Wiseman’s experience as a long-time documentarian is an asset to approach here. Most documentaries are interviews in which the subjects open up and share their perspectives, and Wiseman employs the same techniques to delve deep into Nathalie Boutefeu’s performance, and their collaboration allows Boutefeu to deeply embody the character.
Wiseman, who often directs long, lean, and uncompromising cinema vérité documentaries like At Berkeley and City Hall, takes a more polar opposite approach here by making a 63-minute narrative where he still carries on his cinema vérité approach in search of emotional truths. A Couple may be a lot shorter than his documentaries, but it’s just as fascinating, and what’s at stake here is the measure of a woman whose adoration of an intricate marriage is worth revealing.
A Couple screens at the Detroit Film Theatre on Saturday, March 18 and Sunday, March 19; tickets can be purchased at dia.org.