‘Un Couple’ review: Frederick Wiseman’s first ever ‘fictional’ film imbues Tolstoy in his strange, artful ode to a woman [B] | Venice Film Festival
Un Couple has been described as legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s first fictional, feature-length film. In truth it is neither. The 64-minute series of monologues performed by French actress Natalie Boutefeu at various vistas on a small island off the coast of Brittany, northwestern France, are made up of Sophia Tolstoya’s diary entries and letters to Leo, her husband of 48 years. It is not remotely cinematic, perhaps despite its intent, and would be best suited to play on loop in a dark room off the main visitor walkway at Tolstoy’s lifelong home and museum near Tula, southwest of Moscow.
Un Couple is, nevertheless, quite the curio. Made over a few weeks last year as Wiseman and his collaborators were stranded in France, Boutefeu embraces the quirky setup she is given, and delivers a charming, plausibly stoic performance as the seminal Russian author’s oft-spurned spouse. At a time when monuments to her nation’s artists are being demolished across Eastern Europe — not for no reason — Mrs Tolstoya’s perspective feels particularly timely. Though she wrote the letters in Russian, and was forced to perform them in front of dinner party guests at Tula in the same language, Boutefeu’s French is more than just a compromise. The protagonist of Tolstoy’s most famous work, Pierre Bezkuhkov in War and Peace, was given a French name so that he could more easily float up the social hierarchy. When educated Russians like the Tolstoys and their houseguests looked to the West for sophistication and modernity, something Russians are no longer allowed to do, their eyes landed not on London, Rome or Berlin, but on Paris. That makes Boutefeu’s sometimes pained delivery of some difficult diaries and letters all the more powerful.
Tied to that is the resonance of Covid, which separated families and estranged marriages all over the world. The Tolstoys’ bond, by Sophie’s reckoning, was cruelly distant and soon later claustrophobically intimate. “Disenchantment has invaded our life,” she notes at one point passively, as if aliens had invaded. She could also have been describing lockdown.
If it is the case — as Tolstoy informed us in the famous first line of Anna Karenina — that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, there was plenty unique about the Tolstoys’ own unhappiness. Most woundingly, Sophie recalls, at a high point in their relationship her husband told a complimentary friend that their marriage “could be better.” There isn’t much evidence for why he might’ve said this, beyond his own internal anxieties. What’s likelier is that Tolstoy felt he could not be a brilliant writer if he was happy. Sophie suffered the consequences. Wiseman’s new film is a strange, artful ode to a woman too often left in the dark.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival.