Venice 2022

A Couple review – portrait of a lady is dire

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman's first foray into non-fiction is a lethargic monologue that outstays its welcome at just 63 minutes

At 92, the celebrated documentarian Frederick Wiseman, known for his meticulous, extensive portraits of American institutions, has earned the right to do whatever he wants. His latest, A Couple, was made during the COVID lockdown on the French island of Belle-Île and marks his first foray into non-fiction filmmaking. For a director who has often leaned into the notions of tedium in his painstakingly detailed work, though, this experimental project is sadly lethargic to the point of despair.

Start with that somewhat misleading title: A Couple, in fact, defies the suggestion of its name and features only one actor, its premise single-minded to an eventually sleep-inducing degree. Here, we find the French actress Nathalie Boutefeu playing the wife of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, Sophia, in a series of dramatic readings based on actual letters she wrote to the literary giant during their decades of marriage, adapted by Wiseman and Boutefeu and then deployed for 63 minutes straight with little tonal disparity or visual variation.

Of course, there's a degree of knowing irony to that title, the weight of Sophia's lover overwhelming in spite of his absence, his – in her view – often careless, selfish choices inflicting misery upon his spouse of 36 years and defining the way she viewed herself within the context of their relationship. Yet while the ambitious and dismissive Tolstoy may have wronged Sophia, the execution and framing here – simple mid-shots, with Boutefeu often sitting and addressing the camera in a fairly muted way – makes it hard for us to invest in the agency Wiseman's film so clearly wants to give her. After around fifteen minutes, the experience begins to feel a bit like going for an endless drink with somebody who only ever talks about themselves.

This material, far better suited for the stage, is also underserved by A Couple's failing to be formally inventive. Instead, Wiseman elects to breaks up long periods of talking with the occasional image of a flower, or a field, or crashing waves – padding for what feels like padding's sake. But when a nice shot of some trees blowing in the wind is the most exciting thing in your movie, it's hard not to question why anyone thought this was a good idea – or, at the very least, whether a more emotive actor than Boutefeu was required to keep us engaged.

We might be inclined to cut Wiseman, one of his generation's greatest documentary filmmakers, a bit of slack, given the intent and the conditions under which the film was made. Even with that in mind, though, it's hard to imagine who this film was intended for outside of its director and maybe – maybe – a few diehard Tolstoy enthusiasts. No, this is ultimately a curio, a private experiment – something to merely do at a loose end? – that can't be judged against the usual guidelines of cinematic scrutiny, a film without stars and no real use for a star rating. A Couple won't do a thing to tarnish its director's legacy, but it certainly won't be the thing he's remembered for.

A Couple screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

Catherine Called Birdy review – YA gets medieval, with joyous results

Writer-director Lena Dunham proves a perfect fit for this very kind and very funny coming-of-age tale set in 13th century England

Athena review – relentless kineticism fuels a deeply political urban war movie

Romain Gavras's story of violent social rage is one of the most technically ambitious and proficient films of the year

Avatar review – spectacular visuals undone by a slight and sappy story

James Cameron's epic blockbuster, the highest-grossing movie ever, is back in theatres to drum up anticipation for the coming sequel

Ticket to Paradise review – rom-com revival is an all-too familiar trip

George Clooney and Julia Roberts thrive as bickering divorcees, but they're let down by a script that can't match their chemistry

Features

Every David Cronenberg Film, Ranked

To mark the release of Crimes of the Future, Steph Green sorts the body-obsessed auteur's vast filmography from worst to best...

I Was Born to Be a Mother: Jennifer Garner and Juno

As Juno turns 15, Yasmin Omar explores how the actress' perfectly pitched turn as an adoptive mother helped to define her career

American Prophet: Jodie Foster and Contact

To coincide with the 25th anniversary of Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi classic, Luke Walpole looks back on its perfectly pitched lead turn

Stream With a Theme: The Best Jane Austen Films

As the latest take on Persuasion comes to Netflix, Steph Green highlights some of the author's finest screen adaptations to date