Though legendary for a callous disregard for the lives of the sailors who criss-cross her stormy surfaces, the sea turns out to be a far milder mistress than Léa Seydoux in Ildikó Enyedi’s handsome but heavy-bottomed “The Story of My Wife,” the Hungarian director’s first return to Cannes since winning the Camera d’Or for her charming 1989 debut, “My Twentieth Century.” Starring Imola Lang’s superb 1920s/’30s production design, Leá Seydoux’s bouncy, tousled bob and Seydoux herself — in roughly that order — the film probably contains enough visual flourish to fill a perfectly watchable, if hardly groundbreaking feature. Just not one that sails dangerously close to the three-hour mark, taking on water the whole time.
A central problem: This is much more the story of the veteran seaman husband of the titular wife, played recessively by Dutch actor Gijs Naber, who is apparently as passively weak-willed on land as he is capable and decisive on the water. Jakob Störr is the longtime captain of a cargo freighter who is advised to marry by his ship’s cook as a potential cure for chronic stomach pain, and, as he will do time and baffling time again, he follows this minor character’s counsel to the letter. At lunch in Paris with his roguish friend Kodor (Sergio Rubini), he announces his intention to marry “the first woman to walk through that door.”
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Initially it seems he’s lucky that said woman is is the sultry and playful Lizzy (Seydoux), and positively lottery-winning that she goes along with his proposal, first as a game to make another suitor jealous, and then in (apparent) earnest. But the seeds of Jakob’s marriage-long discontent are right there in that first meeting with his future wife: throughout the course of his many absences at sea, and then during their more settled lives in Paris and Hamburg, he can never believe in her fidelity. The contradiction between Lizzy’s simultaneously seductive and derisive attitude toward him certainly keeps Jakob in a state of ongoing uncertainty as to her heart — in terms of the mysterious unknowable feminine, all secret smiles and private habits, Seydoux is well cast. But if this really is Lizzy’s story as billed, shouldn’t there be more switches to flick in her character than this simplistic faithful/faithless binary?
Jakob’s insecurity deepens when he glimpses Lizzy fraternizing with a potential love rival across a crowded Paris salon (again, the lushness of the period detailing and Marcell Rév’s scrumptiously warm-toned photography do provide their compensations). Even as a blurry outline lighting her cigarette, Louis Garrel’s mysterious, louche Dedin poses a clear sexual threat. But when the couple finally talk about Jakob’s fears, Lizzy’s solution is to encourage him to have his own extramarital romance, which, being Jakob, he duly does, with lovestruck young Grete (Luna Wedler, a bright-eyed breath of fresh air), a passenger on the pleasure cruiser Jakob saved from doom with his quick-thinking captainship.
After the shimmery contemporary magic realism of her Berlin-winning “On Body and Soul,” Enyedi is ostensibly going back to her “My Twentieth Century” costume-drama wheelhouse. But the task of adapting someone else’s writing for the first time (the film is based on Milán Füst’s novel “The Story of my Wife: Reminiscences of Captain Störr”) seems to have overwhelmed the delightful offbeat delicacy she finds in her own stories. Divided into seven quirkily titled chapters which are only useful as a kind of interminable countdown, “Story” falls into every trap of the over-reverential adaptation: individual scenes go on too long, there are far too many of them, and everyone sounds like they’re reading when they speak.
Accented English is not the issue — at a pinch all these variously European characters might use English to talk to one another. But given the years the story spans, the idioms and speech patterns that Jakob, especially, uses should have settled into a comfortable rhythm for him by now, however idiosyncratic. Instead, the exchanges between him and Lizzy often sound brambly with colloquialisms organic to neither character but to the voice of some literary narrator.
As an accomplished visual stylist, Enyedi still occasionally displays her wonderful knack for transmitting volumes of information wordlessly, especially through the exchange of loaded looks, that bounce off opulently mirrored interiors, or cut through doorways and windows to be framed within frames within frames. Lizzy steals a furtive glance at the clock just as Jakob is about to go down on her; Jakob’s stare through a cafe window snags on the quick gaze of a shopgirl on a cigarette break; Grete falls in love at literal first sight through a boat-cabin window.
Similarly, so much of the photography and choreography during the film’s seabound portions is genuinely stunning: tanned, half-naked sailors cavorting drunkenly on deck against a powerful blue sea; Jakob sitting in a bobbing shaft of sunlight reflected through a porthole; coils of rope forming a perfect still life against a listing background; the pretty white cruise ship, lulled on a tranquil sea beneath a bright peach sunset. Ironic that “The Story of My Wife” is perfectly seaworthy, but sinks each time it comes in to port.
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