Therefore, after a rough jump across the pond (more chop on the flight than I usually like – my “like” percentage is next to none, but it was bad, even by seasoned flyer standards, I’d reckon), I got here on Friday and was able to see a single film, the new image of the venerable documentarian Frederick Wisemanwho were present at the premiere of “A couple.” He is 92 so I have no reason to complain mine trip, I think.
By the way, the weather here is beautiful, warm and with a humidity level that doesn’t quite tip over into the uncomfortable. It’s pleasant enough that I’m writing this from the terrace of my hotel on the Lido, despite the mosquitoes being bulky and ravenous and rude and eating me alive when I don’t swat them (one of them just landed) one of my knuckles – who DOES that?).
This beautiful and touching image is a late-career curveball from Wiseman. First, it’s only an hour and change in length—Wiseman’s immersive documentaries, investigations of power hierarchies in a variety of life settings, sometimes hit the 200-minute mark. Second, it’s not a documentary, despite all the spoken words in it coming from real people. Third, regardless of the title, only one person appears on the screen.
Wiseman wrote the film (which is in French) with the protean French actress Nathalie Boutefeuwho plays Sophia Tolstoy, the Russian writer’s wife Leo Tolstoy. The film’s monologue, such as it is, was taken from her diary and her letters and from Leo’s letters to her.
Dressed in a simple outfit that suggests turning 19Th century to the 20thTh, complete with a shawl that has a floral design that matches the gardens she sometimes walks through, Boutefeus Sophia speaks to her husband with tenderness and longing at first. Sometimes she speaks directly to the camera, sometimes to the sea or the distance. Her tenderness turns to indignation, then anger. A woman with no inconsiderable talent for writing, she is thrust into the position of The Great Man’s Wife (in fact she was Leo’s copyist for War and peace; consider the possibility of irritation there) and calls him out, not just because of it, but because he shows more consideration for his serfs than for her. “The poet burns and consumes others,” she says, and she is not wrong. And in the end she comes back to tenderness and longing. The film is a remarkably concentrated work. Elegant, graceful, purposefully spiky.