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With “A Couple,” the legendary 92-year-old Frederick Wiseman has finally directed a scripted drama after making documentaries for 60 years. And not just any documentaries: Wiseman’s work tends to focus on institutions and the individual’s function within them. In filming, they practice a doctrine of non-intervention, observing events that are already happening while trying their best not to interrupt or steer them, but the editing condenses and manipulates the material to suggest certain ideas or patterns. Wiseman has often said that he considers terms like “Cinema Verite” and “Direct Cinema” to be useless, because one cannot make a movie without altering raw material in ways that graft the filmmaker’s consciousness onto it. He’s been making nonfiction cinema his way since the 1960s.
“A Couple” is being received in some corners of film journalism as a startling departure for Wiseman, and at first glance, it might seem like one. It’s an 18th-century period piece, shot in the wide, narrow format preferred by Oscar-baiting costume dramas, and it’s visualizing a screenplay about the marriage of Leo Tolstoy and his young wife Sophia that was drawn from writings by (and about) both.
But it’s not a departure at all. Wiseman has been involved with theater (often as a director) for decades, in productions that derived from his documentary work or adapting existing plays or other sources. He’s even appeared as an actor in a couple of them: a 1987 production of Luigi Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise (for which he directed video sequences) and a 2006 production of Samuel Beckett’s Oh les beaux jours.
Wiseman is not directing “actors” here, but one actress, Nathalie Boutefeu, who worked with him ten years ago on a stage production: an adaptation of Emily Dickinson, La Belle d’Amherst (The Belle of Amherst) by William Luce. Boutefeu came to Wiseman with an original screenplay based largely on the journals of Sophia Tolstoy and is co-credited as the screenwriter here. “A Couple” connects with Wiseman’s other film work because it examines an institution (in this case, marriage) by observing a person telling a story about it. If Wiseman had directed a film specifically focused on that subject, it might’ve been called “Marriage” and it likely would have included multiple couples and perhaps the employees of a marriage license bureau. There’s only one character here, but the institution is still illuminated by verbal storytelling, as well as our observations about how the speaker comports herself as she describes her situation.
Sophia’s story takes the form of a letter to Leo that ranges over a long, fundamentally unhappy marriage between an older man and a much younger woman. An introductory sequence highlights the natural splendors of the film’s location, the French island of Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, and establishes Sophia within it. Then Sophia sits at a candlelit table and puts pen to paper to compose a letter, then reads (or speaks) the letter aloud, sometimes to an unseen listener, sometimes straight into the camera. The result is a 62-minute monologue that would be described in a theater program as a one-woman show, and aside from periodic montages of closeups and wide shots of Sophia in nature (and nature itself), the movie is powered by words and more words.
In light of all this, what’s ultimately most fascinating about this movie is how it suggests that a documentary filmmaker photographing spontaneous events is maybe not that different from a director trying to film a piece of theater not by “opening it out” and turning it into something that’s more obviously “a movie,” but by preserving, or somehow suggesting, that the action is occurring on some kind of stage. In both cases, a thing happens in front of the camera, and the “documentarian” is trying to be true to the spirit of what happened while at the same time standing back from it and looking for motifs and connective notions. In one case, there’s a script, and in the other, there isn’t.
“A Couple” is filmed theater that has been captured and interpreted by a fly-on-the-wall documentarian. The island is an outdoor stage, and Wiseman stages action all over it: in the Tolstoys’ house; in the meticulously laid-out garden behind it; in the nearby woods; and on a rocky shore where waves churn and crash. One of the key images in the opening sequence is a bee pollinating a flower.
Soon after that, Sophia begins her story, which is about a woman who was plucked from her youth by a controlling, chronically unfaithful older man whose first reflex was always to diminish or negate her importance and make it impossible for her to develop her own voice as a writer, or her own identity as a human being. Boutefeu is 46, the right age for a character looking back on a marriage that began when she was a young adolescent. She invests the character with sorrowful authority, blistering regret, and, most wrenchingly, a self-flagellating desire to be cherished by the man who broke her. That she still sounds like a teenager makes it all the more poignant.
“A Couple” only has one character, but we get such a strong sense of Leo just from hearing him described that we feel as if he’s an invisible second lead. Sometimes Sophia’s monologue is shot in ways that make it seem as if an unseen person is being addressed off-camera. Other times, we’re Leo, being confronted by a woman who is still filled with love and hope but also consumed by justifiable bitterness over the ways she’s been molded, mangled, constricted, humiliated, belittled, condescended to, and repeatedly cheated on. If the film were set in the modern day, we would expect the story to end with the wife leaving the husband to start a new life and finally flower on her own. But this story is true to the real people it is based on, and the time in which they lived, and that’s not what happened.
Now playing in select theaters.