A Couple

After decades of marriage to one of the richest men in Russia, the author Leo Tolstoy, his much younger wife Sophia (Nathalie Boutefeu, "Kings and Queen," "Polisse") reflects on the highs and lows, obstacles and advantages of being “A Couple.”

Laura's Review: B

Cowriter (with star Nathalie Boutefeu)/director Frederick Wiseman ("In Jackson Heights," "City Hall") is known for his very long, fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but his rare narrative features are surprisingly short in length, this one running a mere 64 minutes.  In adapting Sophia Tolstoy’s letters and diaries, Wiseman and Boutefeu reveal an insightful and passionate explorer of the human heart, an eloquent writer hidden in the shadow of her uncommonly famous husband.

Wiseman, who acknowledges a love of monologues in the film’s press notes, has set off his star’s exceptional performance of one in La Boulaye garden on Belle-Île off the coast of Normandy.  He opens with one of his classic cutaway montages, celebrating forget-me-nots, camellias, fuchsia and calla lilies, and returns to the natural beauty frequently, the measured beats of these interludes unmistakably identifying a Wiseman film.

Boutefeu handles her single narrative with a surprising degree of naturalism, alternating direct camera addresses with thoughts murmured with downcast eyes or questioning behavior while staring off into the distance.  This is a marriage she describes as beginning blissfully when she was eighteen years old (he was thirty-six), each reading from their diary to each other on their wedding night.  But the man she had thirteen children with over the course of decades began to have wild mood swings, treating her with great affection in private only to undermine her in front of guests.  The man who wrote that she gave him the happiness of one in a million is accused of having no interest in her inner life, her joys and sorrows.  She questions the oppression of her own artistic outlets by housework and children.  And yet, Sophia claims to still be in love with him.

Wiseman shoots Boutefeu not only in still garden shots, but tracks her walking through its grounds or sitting in stone-walled room writing by the light of an oil lamp.  Some of her more fiery passages are set seaside, ocean waves crashing into boulders at the shore.  “A Couple” is a unique take on a marriage through one woman’s emotional yet analytical monologue.  It’s a plea for love in the most romantic of locations.

Robin's Review: B

Maestro documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has made just three feature films during all of his decades making movies. Now, the man who is renowned for his multi-hour docs brings us a spare 63 minute reflection by Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sophie (Natalie Boutefeu) in a one-woman show, “Un Couple.”

What we have here is an hour+ long soliloquy by Sophie on her marriage to Leo Tolstoy in the late 19th century. It is a picture of a woman, as smart and educated as her famous husband, who is destined to live in his shadow – despite her own skills as a writer.

Over the course of the film’s run time, we see Wiseman’s patented lingering shots of nature – ducks, frogs, birds, bees, flowers and trees all shot in idyllic soft light – used as backdrop for Sophie’s ramblings on Leo. And, boy, does she ramble about his infidelities, his bastard child, his selfishness and unyielding ways.

My modern sensibilities say “why didn’t she just dump the jerk?” But, I put myself in her shoes, in those days, and I realized she could not. Not in that society and at a time (long time) when women lived as second-class citizens, without rights, in the shadows of their entitled husbands. Times may have changed for women but, to me, not fast enough and not yet.

Zipporah Films released "A Couple" in select theaters on 11/11/22.