Russian writer Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, referred to in English as Leo, is known most widely for “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” An eccentric aristocrat, he was married to the same woman for nearly 30 years. He became engaged to Sophia (née Behrs) when she was just 18 years old. He was 16 years her senior.
The Tolstoys’ marriage was turbulent from the start. Long stretches of amity were punctuated by his affairs, their broody interludes and flaming arguments – many of which were carried out via written correspondence. Oddly, even while living under the same roof, the couple wrote long hand-written letters to one another. Separately, both chronicled their lives in personal diaries.
Sophia’s diaries serve as a portion of the text for “Un Couple” (“A Couple”), a new film by Frederick Wiseman that opens on Friday, Nov. 11, at Film Forum in Lower Manhattan. But the script is not merely a series of excerpts from her personal journals, the noted filmmaker said in a recent interview; rather, it’s a “mix of her diaries, her notebooks, and his letters to her.”
Wiseman is known primarily for his documentaries, like “Central Park” (1990), “In Jackson Heights” (2015), and "City Hall" (2020). But “Un Couple” is not his first scripted film. In 2002 he directed “La Derniere Lettre,” about a Jewish woman in Ukraine awaiting her grim fate at the hands of the advancing Nazis. (Given the current war in Ukraine and resurfacing of antisemetic rhetoric in the United States, that film may feel particularly prescient for some audiences.)
As for the comparison between his scripted and so-called “unscripted” films, Wiseman said he believes his documentaries also have a “narrative arc.” He doesn’t view his latest work as a departure at all from his previous films.
Wiseman worked on the script “on and off for about eight months” with the film’s only actor, Nathalie Boutefeu. “It was a bit of a Covid project for us,” he said. “And then we shot the film in May of ‘21.”
“Un Couple” is a soliloquy of sorts, performed in French by Boutefeu. It is, at times, reflective and pensive. In other moments, Boutefeu as Sophia expresses exasperation with her husband, speaking directly into the camera as if she were addressing the Count himself. “Disenchantment has invaded our lives,” she says at one point, criss-crossing the seaside glen that is the film’s breezy backdrop.
“It’s a beautiful six and a half hectare garden owned by a friend of mine,” Wiseman said. “and the 'third person' in the film.” He views the life of the garden – from blooms to decay – as a “biological” representation of the couple's life. For him, nature holds space in the film as a tangible representation of the Tolstoys’ relationship from its idyllic beginning, through its decay and unraveling, to the end with Leo’s death in 1910. Nature, he contends, can be very dangerous.
And the Tolstoys’ relationship is dangerous and chaotic. “In current terms,” Wiseman said, “it has all the characteristics of domestic violence, except he didn’t hit her.” In the film, Sophia confronts her husband about his angry outbursts, his cheating and his wildly changing moods. She is confused, barely able to keep up with the ever-changing reality of life with Leo Tolstoy.
Sophia appears at once unmoored by her husband’s emotional abuse and, tragically, also drawn closer to him. For some, these roles of abuser and abused the Tolstoys inhabit will feel all too modern. The current understanding of accepted relationship norms may tempt the audience to dismiss Sophia’s undying love for the tortured, genius writer she married. She is subjected to gaslighting. She is to be pitied. His place in literary history is tarnished by the interceding century.
But, Wiseman contends, theirs is not a relationship of this era, and shouldn’t be judged as such. Yes, he said, Leo “certainly was cruel to her,” but it was the 19th century.
“She loved him!” he added. “She copied all of his manuscripts by hand!”
The juxtaposition of the Tolstoys’ love with the dysfunction of their relationship mirrors the contrast between Sophia’s frustration against the backdrop of the bucolic garden. Interacting with little else other than her own thoughts and the text of her husband’s written replies, she paces. At times bereft, she cracks branches, brushes aside tall grass and allows the ocean waves to lick at her long skirt. Barely aware of her surroundings, she’s consumed by thoughts of Leo.
The film is bookended by scenes of Sophia Tolstoy at a spare desk, writing to her beloved Leo by candlelight. Hers is a story that Wiseman admitted captured his attention and, for him, that was enough. He doesn’t think much about the audience, he said. According to him, he has bucked what he views as the Hollywood trend of pandering to “the lowest common denominator.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” he said.
“Un Couple” opens at Film Forum on Friday, Nov. 11; filmforum.com