Therefore, after a hard jump over the pond (more chops on the flight than I normally like – my “likes” percentage sucks, but it was bad even by experienced flight standards , I think), I arrived here on Friday and was able to see only one film, the new photo of the venerable documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who was present for the premiere of “A couple.” He’s 92, so I have no reason to complain about my travel, I think.
The weather here is wonderful, by the way, warm and with a humidity level that does not quite tip over into the uncomfortable. It’s pleasant enough that I write this from the terrace of my hotel on the Lido, despite the fact that the mosquitoes are large, hungry and cheeky and devour me when I do not crush them (one of them has just land on one of my knuckles – who DOES that?).
This beautiful and moving image is a career-ending curveball of Wiseman. First, it’s only an hour long and changes in length – Wiseman’s immersive documentaries, examinations of power hierarchies in a variety of different life contexts, sometimes hit the 200-minute mark. Second, it’s not a documentary, despite all the talk from real people. Third, despite the title, only one person appears on screen.
Wiseman wrote the film (which is in French) with protean French actress Nathalie Boutefeu, who here plays Sophia Tolstoy, the wife of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. The film’s monologue, as it stands, was taken from his diary and his letters, and the letters Leo wrote to him.
Dressed in a simple outfit evoking the turn of the 19e century to 20e, complete with a shawl whose floral motif corresponds to the gardens she sometimes crosses, the Sophia of Boutefeu first addresses her husband with tenderness and nostalgia. She speaks sometimes directly to the camera, sometimes to the sea, or far away. His tenderness turns to indignation, then to anger. A woman of considerable talent for writing, she is released in the role of the great man’s wife (in fact, she was Leo’s copyist for War and peace; consider the potential for irritation there) and calls her not only for that reason, but also because he shows more consideration for his serfs than for her. “The poet burns and consumes others,” she says, and she’s not wrong. And finally, it returns to tenderness and desire. The film is a remarkably concentrated work. Elegant, graceful, deliberately bristling.