Veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, now age 92, has worked for decades making critically loved, epic-length documentaries that often reach well beyond the two-, three- and four-hour mark. His subject matter is often institutional, the places of civic and political life: large government agencies (“City Hall”) and small towns (“Belfast, Maine”), psychiatric hospitals (“Titicut Follies”) and burlesque clubs (“Crazy Horse”), libraries “(“Ex Libris”) and Neiman-Marcus (“The Store”).
So it might come as a surprise to learn that his latest, the intense, sorrowful “A Couple” is neither a documentary nor much longer than an hour (64 minutes, to be precise).
“A Couple” stars French actress Nathalie Boutefeu (“Irma Vep,” “The Butterfly’s Dream”) as Sophia Tolstoy, a writer and the wife of legendary Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, one half of literary history’s most infamously unhappy marriage. Tolstoy was her husband’s secretary and manuscript copyist (“War and Peace,” seven times over), a diarist and the mother to their 13 children. Here Boutefeu (who co-wrote the screenplay with Wiseman) delivers a stunning solo monologue based on those diaries and exchanged letters.
The daughter of a physician, Sophia Andreyevna Behrs married the aristocratic Tolstoy in 1862. She was 18 and, at first, the union was relatively happy, in spite of his having given her his own diaries to read on the eve of their wedding. Those diaries detailed his sexual history (later this action would be included as a semi-autobiographical detail in “Anna Karenina”), including the information that he had already fathered a child with a woman from his family’s estate.
In Boutefeu’s bracing, intimate recounting of these biographical details, the incident takes on the role of an early tell that the ensuing decades with the literary giant would be difficult. A radical Christian pacifist and ascetic, Leo Tolstoy’s penchant for contrition is well-documented, and in this marriage story told from the point of view of the person who knew him best and sacrificed herself for his career, it also serves as an ironic counterpoint to his lifelong practice of cruelty and emotional insensitivity. Unburdening oneself of guilt over past transgressions rarely takes into account the object of that unburdening, but Boutefou is here to explain just what sort of toll it takes, no matter how devoted one is to the practice of staying married.
For the entire running time of “A Couple,” Boutefeu wanders an unnamed region of the French coast, and longtime Wiseman cinematographer John Davey positions her as a center of quiet turmoil in an otherwise bucolic setting. Speaking directly to her spouse as though he were simply out of the frame, walking too many steps ahead, her warm recollection of early married life in which they “grew together, moving in the same direction,” gives way to despair and devastation: “I spend my time stifling my talents… I poison your life… my heart is exhausted.” Little doubt is left as to how happy anyone is in this partnership.
Wiseman’s documentary career informs this detour into scripted narrative, and the results are equally thrilling. (It is his second, in fact, after 2002’s “The Last Letter,” which was also an hour-long solo monologue, delivered by French actress Catherine Samie, and based on Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate.”) The filmmaker is known for spending time in a location, observing in meticulous detail the workings of the institutional subject, especially those details which might otherwise go unnoticed. Without overt or explicit commentary, Wiseman then composes a condensed narrative of that place, embedded with a deeply humane perspective even if, say, the workings of the Boston city government or the luxury fur section of a high-end department store wouldn’t immediately lend themselves to that.
Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries also span decades, so this fraction of her life, one hour with her proxy, is as much a distillation as Wiseman’s six-hour hospice care film, “Near Death.” Not uncoincidentally, “A Couple” is itself an examination of a kind of death, one set in the endlessly regenerating beauty of nature, the sound of a small stream or the ocean never far away. Boutefeu’s performance in this delicate but wild environment is coiled and tense, but one that balances interior pain with a graceful delivery. She embodies rage, bitter amusement, longing and emotional knowledge that comes only from decades spent with one very difficult person.
“Is our life together over?” she asks to no immediate answer, the only response she can determine for herself, knowing well that it won’t be over until it’s over. Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries are themselves an epic-length story of sacrifice, resentment and mourning; they are scenes of a marriage that’s turned brittle, containing a world of feeling. And here, shaped by Wiseman and Boutefeu, they become a small monument to love and loss.
“A Couple” opens Nov. 11 at Film Forum in NYC.