Review by Sean Boelman
Frederick Wiseman is one of the most prolific documentary filmmakers working today, so the cinephile world was shocked when it was announced he would be tackling something a bit more narrative for his newest project. As expected, what is seen on the surface of A Couple is relatively simple, but what Wiseman makes the audience feel is something else entirely.
The movie explores the relationship between Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sophia Tolstaya, told entirely through the perspective of Sophia. Based on letters and diaries written by Sophia, the film presents an interesting glimpse into their relationship, although it is admittedly the type of literary story that few general audiences would be interested in.
Although the title might imply that it is a two-hander, it is entirely a one-woman show for Natalie Boutefeu. Within the context of what she is being asked to do, Boutefeu’s performance is quite solid. It does sound like she is reading at times, but given that the movie is essentially a series of performances of written historical materials, this style of performance works quite well.
Viewers will feel like they are getting a peek into the personal life of this character, and Wiseman and Boutefeu do an extraordinary job of grounding the character. In fact, if you didn’t know the context of Leo Tolstoy and Sophia Tolstaya going in, it would be easy not to realize this is about one of the most famous literary couples in history.
The film definitely discusses gender dynamics of that era in a way that is compelling, but it does have the limitation of all coming from a single source. Although the points being made are certainly valid and a necessary part of the discussion, the fact that it is one person saying and repeating them can cause it to come across as whining.
Of course, the movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at, but one would expect no less from a master director such as Wiseman. Wiseman reteams with cinematographer John Davey, who has worked with him for more than a decade, and the result is some beautiful images of the French seaside.
Essentially, the film is one big monologue, and it does begin to feel slightly monotonous at times. The repetitive structure of the script definitely doesn’t help. However, given that the runtime is barely over an hour, it breezes by and is enjoyable to watch if only because of the gorgeous visuals.
A Couple does suffer from monotony at times, but those who are a fan of Wiseman’s patient style in his documentaries are likely to find much of the same enjoyment here. It’s a gorgeously-shot, elegant watch — maybe not one of the best in the master’s filmography, yet still excellent nonetheless.
A Couple hits theaters on November 11.