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Review: Documentary star looks for new direction in ‘Couples’


More than 50 years ago, Frederick Wiseman became the singular voice of filmmaking with his hit Titicut Follies, a damning portrait of the Massachusetts government’s treatment of the mentally ill. From the outset, it’s interesting to see where Wiseman is now with his latest film, The Couple , adapted from the diary entries of Sophia Tolstoy, wife of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

The film features a series of readings from Sophia’s diary performed by Nathalie Boutefeau, who co-wrote the film with Wiseman. Dressed in period clothing, Sofia walks through various landscapes and seascapes as she details her marriage to a famous writer—a marriage that was not a happy one. At the end of the film, there are shots of Sofia at a desk, writing down her thoughts with only one lantern to accompany her. This loneliness permeates the entire film. No other character appears anywhere – not even Mr. Tolstoy.

Although Wiseman is a work of art, his documentary skills are omnipresent. Boutefe testifies to the camera as if she were the subject of an interview. There is no narration or on-screen text to contextualize the images and words presented to the viewer. The drama of the story comes from Sophia’s actual works, giving the film an anchor in reality that connects it to the rest of Wiseman’s works creativity.

If Wiseman’s films are about themes, this film will be about the stormy marriage of a great artist. Given the recent death of Wiseman’s own wife, these reflections on marriage are deeply personal for the director, although his relationship with his wife seemed much more loving than Tolstoy’s. Dissatisfied with her husband, Sophia’s letters vary in their displeasure. One scene explores her doubts about Leo’s lifestyle choice of working and sleeping, creating a disconnection from his wife and children. Another scene is about an anniversary party where someone compliments them on their 10 years together and Leo says in front of everyone that “it could have been better”. Her insights reveal the difficulties of balancing work and family as a single artist.

Wiseman has said that his films are not objective, but rather subjective reflections of personal experience. He may be biased in favor of Sophia’s side of the story, but the film goes deeper than simply showing his distaste for Leo. At 92 and recently widowed, Wiseman knows he’s late in his career. Instead of being comfortable in the world of documentary, he continues to challenge himself and reflect on his life and the life of Sophia Tolstoy.

Contact Sebastian Zufelt at nyunews.com.

This story Review: Documentary star looks for new direction in ‘Couples’ first appeared on Washington Square News.

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