While watching Frederick Wiseman’s “Un Couple” — the legendary documentarian’s first fictional drama— a different literary giant comes to mind besides the ones whose mercurial marriage is depicted on screen. The film’s fickle love recalls a verse from Latin poet Catullus, undoubtedly familiar to anyone who studied the language in school: “what a woman says to her ardent lover should be written in wind and running water.”
The woman in question in “Un Couple” is Sophia Tolstoy, wife of legendary Russian novelist Leo, as embodied in the film by French actress Nathalie Boutefeu. She was no slouch in the writing department herself, penning letters to and diaries about her husband. For just over an hour, Boutefeu recites episodic excerpts from the source material against the backdrop of a windy garden off the rocky coast of northwest France. Sophia tells us the ups and downs of her relationship, from the feelings of savage despair to mighty love. The narrative builds nicely, if not particularly neatly, into her surrender to the mysteries of the heart.
It’s an intriguing change of pace for Wiseman, the 92-year-old filmmaker best known for his observational documentaries surveying institutions and ideas. While it’s great to see an example of a filmmaker refusing to rest on his laurels or stay inside the nearly defined box of his cultural reputation, a film must be a film – not just a concept. “Un Couple” never quite manages to transcend its origins as a precious pandemic project.
Wiseman can make five hours fly by in his documentaries, yet just a single one here feels quite belabored. “Un Couple” quickly settles into a familiar groove for each passage. Wiseman opens on a wide shot of Sophia to establish her setting within the island’s ecological terrain. At a moment of emotional inflection, he jumps into a closer shot to capture the intimate feeling underlying the text. With time, he’ll shift back out again before jumping to some insert shots of flora and fauna within the garden to establish the corollary between the rhythms of love and the processes of nature. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Perhaps Wiseman meant the template free up the focus of the eyes so all energy can go toward parsing the words. But Boutefeu speaks at such a steady clip with little time for dramatic pauses that it becomes exhausting simply to keep pace. That’s made doubly challenging for anyone not able to listen in French and must read along in the subtitles. If there are verbal nuances in Boutefeu’s recitation, Wiseman makes it far too easy to miss them in the speedy, succinct “Un Couple.”
It might also be the case that Wiseman establishes such consistency so he can draw attention to the ruptures. “Un Couple” does exhibit some minor variations. Toward the end of the film, Wiseman introduces more camera movement to capture Sophia’s increasing sense of exasperation. As the tension in her relationship with Leo grows, so does the restlessness of the camera – but only ever so slightly.
The matter of where and to whom she delivers her address is also an intriguing wrinkle. The film maintains the epistolary of Sophia’s writing rather than simply flattening the words into a theatrical monologue. Speaking the letter is a different process than writing them; Wiseman even goes so far as to visually delineate the two processes for Sophia.
So does her eyeline indicate that she’s imagining Leo and speaking directly to him? Is she looking straight into the camera, aligning the internal and external audiences of her speechifying? Does the helplessness of love need any object at all, for that matter, or is it just a shout into the void? The implications add at least some intrigue amidst the dry delivery of Sophia’s lovesick lamentations and odes.
But these moments of deviation are too small and infrequent to elevate the film beyond the level of a stylistic exercise. A phrase will pop, but then the feeling dissipates without a sense of forward momentum to sustain the revelation. Nonetheless, if “Un Couple” keeps the nonagenarian Wiseman fresh enough to do another full feature, 64 minutes make for a meager toll to pay along the road to greatness. [C+]