A Couple: a short but sweet character study

Frederick Wiseman’s latest departure from his usual lengthy documentaries about institutions and communities is an intimate, insightful, hour-long fictionalised portrait of Sophia Tolstoya, the long-suffering wife of Leo Tolstoy.

14 September 2022

By Nicolas Rapold

Nathalie Boutefeu as Sophia Tolstoya in A Couple (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Venice International Film Festival.

What a piece of work is man – especially when the man is Leo Tolstoy. That’s judging from the sentiments of his wife, Sophia, the long-suffering subject of Frederick Wiseman’s Un Couple. Despite that title, she is the sole person on screen, relating Tolstoy’s Great Writer tendencies toward solipsism, irritability, neediness and cruelty. We ended up with War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and so on; but Sophia – who wrote volumes herself, including the journals that fuel this film – was racked by doubt, rage, sadness, not to mention exhaustion. To a great extent, she explains, this was a life of self-sacrifice, with passion present but ebbing and flowing over the years, until finally, she wondered: was it all a delusion?

Such are the depths of feeling in Wiseman’s latest departure from his usual documentary studies of institutions and communities. French actor Nathalie Boutefeu, with whom Wiseman previously collaborated on a play about Emily Dickinson, embodies Sophia Tolstoy in a suitably old-fashioned frock, delivering her monologues throughout the tangled garden on the grounds of a house in Belle-Île, France, and on the island’s rocky coast. Above all it’s a chance for the 92-year-old master filmmaker to delve into the interiority of an individual, instead of the workings of a group, and to do so over an extended period of time – an adult life – rather than the present-tense cross-sections that generally comprise his nonfiction work.

In a way this is another institutional study, where the institution is marriage, reflected upon through Sophia’s perceptive and at times remarkably forgiving eyes. It’s at once the cri de coeur of a woman worn down by helping manage a Russian estate (and its temperamental owner), and an inverse portrait of the creative process, the day-to-day and lifelong toll taken by a writer prizing his work above all else. Sophia and Leo are bonded close, but in the sound track’s tumult of birds, toads and other critters, it’s hard not to see a symbolic tension gathering in the natural clamour, rather than the peace of bucolic solitude. As a performer – a bit like Truffaut’s Two English Girls (1971) speaking letters to camera – the level-gazed Boutefeu evenly suggests both doughty stamina and nerves run raw from debates, internal and external.

A Couple is also a triumph of distillation: the director and his star joined forces to create the soliloquy from the writings of both Sophia and Leo, running into the hundreds of pages. The result is a portal into one woman’s mind and heart, as she speaks for herself and her striving for self-realisation.

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