In light of all this, what’s ultimately most fascinating about this movie is how it suggests that a documentary filmmaker photographing spontaneous events is maybe not that different from a director trying to film a piece of theater not by “opening it out” and turning it into something that’s more obviously “a movie,” but by preserving, or somehow suggesting, that the action is occurring on some kind of stage. In both cases, a thing happens in front of the camera, and the “documentarian” is trying to be true to the spirit of what happened while at the same time standing back from it and looking for motifs and connective notions. In one case, there’s a script, and in the other, there isn’t.
“A Couple” is filmed theater that has been captured and interpreted by a fly-on-the-wall documentarian. The island is an outdoor stage, and Wiseman stages action all over it: in the Tolstoys’ house; in the meticulously laid-out garden behind it; in the nearby woods; and on a rocky shore where waves churn and crash. One of the key images in the opening sequence is a bee pollinating a flower.
Soon after that, Sophia begins her story, which is about a woman who was plucked from her youth by a controlling, chronically unfaithful older man whose first reflex was always to diminish or negate her importance and make it impossible for her to develop her own voice as a writer, or her own identity as a human being. Boutefeu is 46, the right age for a character looking back on a marriage that began when she was a young adolescent. She invests the character with sorrowful authority, blistering regret, and, most wrenchingly, a self-flagellating desire to be cherished by the man who broke her. That she still sounds like a teenager makes it all the more poignant.
“A Couple” only has one character, but we get such a strong sense of Leo just from hearing him described that we feel as if he’s an invisible second lead. Sometimes Sophia’s monologue is shot in ways that make it seem as if an unseen person is being addressed off-camera. Other times, we’re Leo, being confronted by a woman who is still filled with love and hope but also consumed by justifiable bitterness over the ways she’s been molded, mangled, constricted, humiliated, belittled, condescended to, and repeatedly cheated on. If the film were set in the modern day, we would expect the story to end with the wife leaving the husband to start a new life and finally flower on her own. But this story is true to the real people it is based on, and the time in which they lived, and that’s not what happened.
Now playing in select theaters.