​​‘A Couple’ Review: An Uninspired Visual Monologue (New York Film Festival 2022)

Film is a visual medium. As a result, artists tend to use all the elements in film to craft something the other six forms of art can’t do. Elements such as shot composition, pacing in editing, creating a mood or a tone, production and costume design, sound design, and so on. All these elements converge to construct something unique to the cinematic viewing experience. So, it’s sad to see an acclaimed filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, the director of the new film A Couple, not getting the memo in this regard.

A Couple deals with the musings and ruminations of Sophia Tolstoy, the wife of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. The film is constructed in an odd way, lasting for only 60 minutes and focusing on monologues delivered by Nathalie Boutefeu adapted to the screen by Boutefeu and Wiseman from Sophia’s letters and diaries. These soliloquies are broken up by simple nature shots that act as scene transitions to move you from one section to another.

Boutefeu brings forth a nuanced and heartbreaking performance as Sophia Tolstoy, showcasing layers of a woman hurt and scorned by her husband and partner. As these monologues unfold, we see her slow deterioration of herself and her relationship. The delivery is effective albeit redundant to a degree since you understand her plight and suffering by the midway point. Still, the film is insistent on rethreading the same matter over and over again. There’s not much physicality to her performance since it’s mostly relegated to her either standing or sitting and delivering her lines. The visual element also is lacking. The film doesn’t feel cheap per se, but A Couple is too minimalistic for my taste. There’s not much visual variety to the backgrounds utilized in the piece; everything is treated and shot most inefficiently and blandly imaginable. 

I’m not arguing for complex photography, but I fail to understand why this is a film and not a play since it doesn’t use the medium of cinema to add to Nathalie’s performance or enhance it in any way. Even the film’s pacing is simplistic, barebones, and borderline lazy. The movie’s scenes are constructed in the following way: we have a small montage of nature shots akin to whatever setting she’s in – a beach, a river, or a forest. Then we see Sophia Tolstoy entering the frame or already sitting down. She proceeds to deliver her monologue in which the editing eventually cuts from a wide shot to a medium and then to a close-up. Most, if not all, of these shots are framed mostly the same way, with Sophia either looking directly into the camera or off to the side as if she was being interviewed. Rinse and repeat for the next 60 minutes. It feels genuinely uninspired, and it begs the question of why this was even conceived as a film, not a play or something else entirely. 

It never honestly seems like it justifies its existence in any way since it never seems to use the medium of film to enhance the experience of this woman’s marital woes. A Couple just offers an excellent performance by Nathalie Boutefeu and not much else; it decidedly feels almost anti-cinema in a way. If you want to see essentially a very minimalist and short feature-length film about the musings of Sophia Tolstoy, then it’s a great watch, but if not, I’d rather wait and see if they ever turn this script into a theater play instead. 

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