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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

At sea, Captain Jakob Störr is a master, projecting such calm authority in his crisp brass-buttoned uniform that the waves and weather alike seem to bend to his command. On dry land, however, the good captain is all at sea. So, unfortunately, is The Story of My Wife, an extended parabola of a fundamentally misconceived marriage that wrings every last bit of life from its ironic land-sea dichotomy, and then carries on drifting for another two hours. Every festival has at least one of these attractively glazed period Europuddings, in which glistening production values and a mixed Continental platter of fine actors united in stiffly accented English are intended to compensate for general storytelling inertia; and to be fair, this is an exceptionally handsome example.

The disappointment is that it comes from Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi, among the last names you’d associate with filmmaking this lacquered and torpid. Her profoundly singular, Golden Bear-winning 2017 feature On Body and Soul was her first in 18 years, and its dream-propelled romance darted and dived through manifold thematic and formal ideas that felt freed from years of creative limbo. A comparatively speedy four years in the making, The Story of My Wife isn’t bereft of ideas, but they never feel unbottled either from Enyedi’s imagination or her chosen source material, an episodic 1946 novel by Hungarian author Milán Füst. There’s a lovely phantom nearly-film floating somewhere in here — a playful, theoretical romantic comedy probing male restlessness and the underrated possibilities of finite love — and it’s entirely swamped by this adaptation’s unconscionable 169-minute bulk.

The Story of My Wife (2021)

The full title of Füst’s novel, The Story of My Wife: The Reminiscences of Captain Störr, offers more of a clue than the film’s abbreviated version of where this tale’s heart, such as it is, lies. It’s not the story of a woman, but of the man who never really cares to learn her story at all, and suffers the slowly crumbling consequences. Theirs is a relationship built on a whim, a shared joke that never deepens into a mutual understanding.

It begins in a Paris cafe, where Störr (Dutch actor Gijs Naber, a woodcut of undemonstrative sturdiness) flippantly observes to a friend that he could marry the next woman to walk through the door. Luckily for him, at least initially, that turns out to be ravishing, twinkly-eyed Lizzy (Lea Seydoux), who accepts his unorthodox chat-up line — “Forgive my intrusion, but please be my wife” — with an accommodating good humour that immediately shifts proceedings into the realm of the absurd. It’s a dour strain of absurdism, though: their prompt marriage skips any honeymoon period, plunging right into a suspended, repetitive state of paranoia once they move to the scenic but stifling surrounds of Hamburg.

Having never courted or acquainted himself with Lizzy before wedding her, Störr is perennially convinced that she’s seeking happiness outside their marriage. Her ambiguous circling of louche, Brylcreemed rake Dedin (who else but Louis Garrel) lends ballast to his fears, though through the film’s yawning, interminable midsection, this tension never escalates into true conflict. As for what Lizzy herself thinks, well, who knows? Not Seydoux, it seems, unenviably required to embody a diaphanous feminine vision, defined only by elusiveness and caprice, who’s somehow meant to sustain her husband’s (and our) fascination without ever truly showing her soul.

The Story of My Wife (2021)

Under the circumstances, she does about as well as can be expected, aided in no small part by Andrea Flesch’s shimmery, exquisitely tailored costuming and hairstyling you want to reach out and stroke. We can’t stop looking at her, and neither can Störr, even as she recedes from him with each languidly passing year of a marriage that should rightfully have been called off, with a chuckle, three seconds after the proposal. It’s perhaps giving the film the benefit of the doubt to suggest that the zero-chemistry wall between its great-looking stars is calculated, but it does perversely work in the story’s favour.

Beauty, it turns out, cannot sustain an attraction. It also can’t sustain a feature film, though the creamy, gold-flecked pleasures of Marcell Rev’s cinematography are the closest thing it has to a lifeblood — not least in the film’s seafaring scenes, where softly sunlit tableaux of glinting waters, gleaming decks and gorgeously cavorting seamen are enough to make you wonder if the lovelorn, wanderlusting captain has considered finding fulfillment closer to the workplace. Three hours is a long time to explain why straight men don’t make happy sea captains, but it’s one thing Enyedi’s luscious, lulling film does with some clarity. 

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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