A Couple reflects a shift in Wiseman’s work, his fascination in institutional minutia pivoting to more transcendentalist territory, to moving effect.
Performance — itself a form of fiction — is a constant amongst the disparate subjects of Frederick Wiseman’s work: lectures, speeches, reprimands, all delivered with the attempted believability of your standard actor in an audition. As critics try and needlessly compartmentalize the handful of Wiseman films that are considered “fiction,” one should stay attuned to the source material, like in Seraphita’s Diary, which abstracts the ideas of 1981’s model with one of its participants at the center; or The Last Letter, which recounts a true story of a Ukrainian ghetto under Nazi rule, filtered through Russian author Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and then again through Wiseman’s own cinema. More than a narrative feature, Wiseman’s latest, A Couple is an epistolary recitation, as beholden to the adaptations of Straub-Huillet as it is the landscape films of James Benning, though there is a multifaceted emotiveness here too, one which matches itself to a panoply of pastoral imagery.
The sole actor is Nathalie Boutefeu, playing Sophia Tolstoy, married to the much admired, much neglectful, quite jealous Leo when she was only eighteen. A stop-start monologue, pieced together from correspondences and diaries, A Couple is an interrogation of the implications of its general title, conveyed with speech that jumps back and forth across decades, while we as viewers remain in the splendorous garden with Sophia. Sometimes the way Wiseman positions Boutefeu in relationship to the camera and the natural surroundings is reminiscent of These Encounters of Theirs or Workers, Peasants, but there’s this steady pulse of auxiliary activity, like adjusting a shawl or violently untangling and snapping through a pile of branches. And much in the way that Wiseman teleports his camera across city streets and through hallways in his straightforward documentaries, Sophia frequently walks between locations, her own promenades representing a cut, a shift in focus.
In Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession, written while the author was in his early fifties, he admitted to feeling that he had accomplished little even when so cushioned by fame. Sophia pushes back at this, but given the indeterminate construction — there’s no chronological signposts, no distinction between letter and journal entry — her testimony plays like an argument with a loved one, flecked with half-remembrances and apologies amongst the barbs and rightful accusations of indifference. As best he can, Wiseman has visualized Sophia’s drafting process, inserting welcome interruptions in the form of a sun-dappled clearing or frogs in a pond. Knowing that Wiseman’s own wife passed away only last year gives A Couple an extra shock of poignancy, but there’s a contentment in the way that Boutefeu passes through nature, and how her director willingly loses her along the paths and in the woods. For a director so fascinated by institutional minutia, a work of unfettered transcendentalism is, and should be, expected, anticipated, even.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 3.