Review: A star documentarian seeks new direction in ‘A Couple’

Frederick Wiseman, the 92-year-old director, shifts from famed documentaries on institutions to a narrative piece.


Nathalie Boutefeu as Sophia Tolstoy in the French film ‘A Couple.’ (Courtesy of Zipporah Films)

Sebastian Zufelt, Staff Writer

Over 50 years ago, Frederick Wiseman became the single voice of filmmaking with his hit “Titicut Follies,” a damning portrait of the Massachusetts government’s treatment of the mentally ill. From this beginning, it’s fascinating to see where Wiseman is now with his latest film, “A Couple,” adapted from the diary entries of Sophia Tolstoy, Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s wife. 

The film presents a series of readings from Sophia’s diary performed by Nathalie Boutefeu, who co-wrote the film with Wiseman. Dressed in period clothing, Sophia walks through various landscapes and seascapes where she details the arc of her marriage to the famed writer — a marriage that wasn’t pleasant. Bookending the film are shots of Sophia at her desk, inking her thoughts with only a single lantern to accompany her. This loneliness pervades throughout the film. At no point does another character make an appearance — not even Mr. Tolstoy. 

Despite being a work of fiction, Wiseman’s documentary sensibilities are omnipresent. Boutefeu performs the readings facing the camera as though 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 for the narrative comes from actual writings by Sophia, giving the film an anchor in reality that connects it to the rest of Wiseman’s oeuvre

If Wiseman’s films are about themes, then this film would be about the great artist’s tumultuous marriage. Given the recent passing of Wiseman’s own wife, this reflection on marriage is deeply personal for the director, though his relationship with his wife seemed far more loving than that of the Tolstoys. Unhappy with her husband, Sophia’s letters range in their displeasure. One scene explores her qualms about Leo’s lifestyle choices of working and sleeping, creating a disconnection from his wife and children. Another scene details an anniversary party where someone compliments the couple on 10 years together, only for Leo to say that “it could’ve been better” in front of everyone. Her insights reveal the difficulties in balancing work and family as a solitary artist.

Wiseman has said that his films aren’t objective, but rather, subjective representations of personal experiences. He may be biased in favor of Sophia’s side of the story, but the film is deeper than simply an expression of his distaste for Leo. At 92 years old and recently widowed, Wiseman knows he’s late in his career. Rather than staying comfortable where he is in the documentary world, he continues to challenge himself and reflect on both his and Sophia Tolstoy’s life.

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