Frederick Wiseman Stunningly Melds Fiction and Documentation in A Couple

Movies Reviews Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman Stunningly Melds Fiction and Documentation in A Couple

Half an hour into Frederick Wiseman’s A Couple, which happens to also be its halfway point, the camera cuts to and rests on a rapid stream of ants crawling on a log. They scrabble over bark, scoot across exposed wood and weave in and out of splintering crevasses. For myrmecophobic viewers, the sequence is a 14-second nightmare. For Wiseman, it’s a clever visual metaphor comparing the way his subject Sophia Tolstoy lived in service to others with the way ants live in service to the colony. The scurrying mass looks chaotic, but it’s all for the sake of achieving an existential harmony humans rarely find.

Wiseman and Nathalie Boutefeu, his star and co-writer, based A Couple on Sophia’s diaries, molding them into a roughly 60-minute dialogue with their audience, performed by Boutefeu, who wanders between verdant gardens, hushed forests and the meandering, gelid shoreline of Belle-Île, an island within spitting distance of Brittany, where the film was shot. Wiseman, 92 years young and rocking the easygoing vigor of a filmmaker in their 30s, chose his location for a handful of reasons. Practically, shooting in a remote setting kept him safe from COVID back when everyone lived in confinement. Dramatically, Belle-Île gave Boutefeu the space necessary to breathe life into Sophia’s angst-wracked missive to her husband, Leo Tolstoy, because to be Sophia was to be cast in his shadow at all times.

The “great man” and “difficult genius” genres tend to install these men as their protagonists while the influential or otherwise important people in their lives orbit them as secondary characters. That blueprint forces viewers to think charitably of their films’ leads, to the extent that choosing them as the leads in the first place humanizes them. Humanizing the inhuman is a meaningful pursuit. Breaking down, say, scientists, politicians or artists to their component parts allows viewers to better understand them as people, which subsequently allows viewers to better appreciate their contributions to society, culture and progress. But by 2022, that blueprint has also grown ratty around the edges and whether by design or not, A Couple interrogates it, with the simple, innocent choice to focus on Sophia.

Boutefeu enjoys all of A Couple’s oxygen. Belle-Île gave her limitless freedom to bond with Sophia’s spirit and channel her myriad feelings about her legendarily irascible husband, hopelessly tangled with one another as they are: In the same scene, even in the same sentence, Sophia takes emotional journeys that start with earnest love for Leo, shift to anger, bleed into grief and settle down back into love again. Listening to her reminiscences gives the impression that being married to Leo meant spending 30 years and change on a rollercoaster. The part of him that loved Sophia was every bit as sincere as the part of him that resented and loathed her, and worst of all, as the part of him that simply didn’t care enough to pay her any mind. That’s the cost of being hitched to great, difficult, genius men, A Couple suggests.

Boutefeu takes that amusement park ride with restraint, because restraint is appropriate verging on necessary. Sophia didn’t have the luxury of abandon. She’d have been better off kicking a bear than expressing her feelings to Leo at any point of their matrimony; at least the bear couldn’t argue back. Boutefeu cracks open parts of herself that Sophia had to keep closed for her time with Leo, interpreting the words in her diary with an abiding remorse: She aches for her children, whom Leo devoutly ignored; her dignity, which Leo trampled; and her own talents and value as a person, which Leo spurned. Yet she clings to this inexplicable love she holds for him, despite the circumstances of their union: Leo chose her as his spouse when he was 34 and she 18, because at 18 she represented not so much a “human being” as “a vessel he could fill to the brim with his whims and ego.”

“I came to a philosophy of my own which consists in living from day to day with as much gaiety, happiness, intensity as possible,” Boutefeu quietly says in the film’s ending scene, “and to yield with humility and calm to other people’s whims. And I feel more or less fine.” There’s a mercy to this moment, relief that for all the ups and downs, Sophia was able to find a way to endure Leo’s self-aggrandizing greatness. So few people who share her experience do. (A Couple may make an interesting double feature with Todd Fields’ Tár, whose great, difficult, genius man is a great, difficult, genius woman.)

Wiseman’s choice to foreground the fluctuations of Sophia’s monologue requires that he provide stability in the background. This suits his style perfectly: Wiseman is known for long takes and static shots, immersion in cinema that lets his audience occupy spaces he opens up for them through his camera (here manned by his longtime cinematographer John Davey). In functional terms, A Couple’s construction and filmmaking acts as a stage for Boutefeu, a solitary, fixed place where she can sink into character. But that commitment to style connects the film with his documentarian work, too, because what is A Couple but a variation on the documentary form?

Though A Couple is his first narrative feature in 20 years, the narrative structure documents history by fashioning Sophia’s diaries and letters as a performance. But Wiseman likely would prefer not to go through life known only as “the documentary guy,” and, in fairness, A Couple lets him set aside that label for one blessed hour of immaculate narrative filmmaking.

Director: Frederick Wiseman
Writer: Frederick Wiseman, Nathalie Boutefeu
Starring: Nathalie Boutefeu
Release Date: November 11, 2022

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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