Frustrated with her marriage, Sophia Tolstoy writes to her husband Leo in a series of letters that range from bitter to defiant to imploring. The letters and diary entries presented by the French performer Nathalie Boutefeu describe years of resentment and misunderstandings.
A couple marks a rare turn to narrative filmmaking from Frederick Wiseman, one of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers. Shot over 17 days by Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey – largely on Belle Ile, an island off the coast of Brittany – the film pits Sophia’s rebellion against the plants and animals that make up a coastal garden.
Wiseman spoke up filmmakers before a performance of A couple at the New York Film Festival. The film opens November 11 at the Manhattan Film Forum.
Filmmakers: How did you and Nathalie Boutefeu prepare for it? A couple?
Wise man: We started thinking about it two or three years ago. We both read Sophia’s diaries and Tolstoy’s letters. The magazines are very extensive – one volume contains 800 pages. Nathalie made an initial selection, then I sorted them out. We talked a lot about what we wanted to do with the material, the implications of her journal entries and his letters to her. It was a conversation that lasted for about a year.
Filmmakers: You have a few shots of Nathalie writing in a cottage, but most of the film takes place outside.
Wise man: After we agreed on the dialogue, I visited the garden owned by a friend of mine. I showed the location [cinematographer] John Davey, and we discussed alternative framing during rehearsals.
The garden is a central character in the film. On the one hand, it’s very nice, at least I thought so. On the other hand, the garden has a life of its own that is pretty wild. It’s a violent place where animals chase and eat each other.
Filmmakers: So the garden is the equivalent of the hostile setting of Sophia’s marriage to Tolstoy?
Wise man: I don’t know if I would single out Tolstoy that way. I mean nature is a wild place.
Filmmakers: Does Sophia know that?
Wise man: That depends on what “know” means. Sophia has written a few novels, and the theme is generally that a heroine wants a stable marriage. She wants a man who will take care of the children, who will be patient with her, who will be kind and gentle, who will be open to talking to her about things, who will love her and want to spend time with her. I don’t think that’s a particularly unique desire for a man or a woman. It’s not what she had.
Filmmakers: I’m trying to figure out how confident she was.
Wise man: I think she was pretty confident. She just didn’t know how to achieve what she wanted, which is not an unusual situation at this time. Look, I think Tolstoy was 34 when he married her. He had led a very independent life. He had worked his way through the whorehouses of Western Europe. On their wedding night, he tells her that he had an affair with one of the maids and the maid is raising his child in the house. She was 18, so it’s pretty reasonable to assume she didn’t know what she was getting herself into.
Filmmakers: Judging from what is here in excerpts, she was not a born writer.
Wise man: Well, she’s not Tolstoy. But she was an extremely intelligent woman, a gifted pianist, someone who spent much of her life transcribing and partially correcting his lyrics. She is not a great writer, but she is a woman who has the ability to express her feelings – not as great literature, but as an honest expression of her feelings nonetheless. Not everyone has that.
Filmmakers: I hope I don’t seem to belittle her. I’m also surprised at how likable Tolstoy becomes.
Wise man: It’s the eternal question of what it means to be an artist. How an artist spends his time and what sacrifices he makes, whether someone like Tolstoy can lead a family life. What Tolstoy cared about most was his work, everything else was secondary. He made a half-hearted attempt to start a family, but didn’t succeed very well. He was unwilling to acknowledge the needs of his wife or children, except occasionally. When he wasn’t working, he went horseback riding or hunting or tended to his estate. He was one of the richest men in Russia.
Anyone who works in art has experienced something like this, perhaps not in the same extreme form as in their relationship. Filmmakers, painters, writers or whatever, everyone has experienced the tension between work and family. It is not always resolved amicably. I’ve done films all over America and France. When my kids were little, I tried not to be away for more than a month. But a month is a long time.
Filmmakers: I wonder how you approached the visualization of Sophia’s writing. Did you and Davey work out shot lists?
Wise man: During the shoot I wanted to get as wide a coverage as possible. We shot each sequence several times, as long shots, medium long shots and close-ups.
Nathalie and I both knew the script very well because we worked on it together. We discussed the feelings we wanted to convey. We rehearsed on site and if I wanted something changed, we did it again. We did each sequence in at least five or six takes. That gave me a choice in the editing room on how I wanted to play it in the end.
Filmmakers: At one point, Sophia sits on a rock in front of a bamboo stand. You shoot her from different angles and adjust the action as she moves at one point. As you shot each take, did you have an idea of how to put the sequence together?
Wise man: No, I didn’t know how to assemble it when I was working on it. I wanted to make that choice in the editing room. I felt like I didn’t have that time while filming, and I didn’t want to make spontaneous decisions. I wanted to be able to study the material and emotionally figure out where best to get the cut.
Filmmakers: How did you prepare for the editing?
Wise man: I knew I would need transitions. During filming and for three days after we shot the text, we spent time in the garden collecting cutaways. I had about 250 shots of the garden. John and I wandered around taking pictures of the trees, the flowers, and the pond. I also tried to collect lots of shots of Natalie sitting, walking and thinking. I didn’t know where to use her, but I also knew I didn’t want her talking all the time. I needed breaks between the different sections of the monologue.
Filmmakers: Can you comment on the decision to have Nathalie face the camera?
Wise man: I made her look straight into the camera during the moments when she addressed Leo directly. When she’s thinking, thinking, she’s not looking at the camera.
Filmmakers: In your story from 2002 La derniere lettreCatherine Samie also provides a monologue derived from letters.
Wise man: For lack of a better term, I used a much more expressionist approach in this film. The people that the character Anna Semyonovna is talking about are represented by shadows. So the image ranges from no shadows to 40 shadows at any given time in the movie. Visually, it stands out extremely A couple. The narrative tension also comes from Nazis, not from an unhappy marriage.
Filmmakers: Are you currently working on a documentary film?
Wise man: No, I’m working on a project to convert my films to DCPs. I have 32 titles shot on film that can’t really be shown because most theaters don’t have 16mm equipment anymore. A foundation gave me a grant to clean and restore the films and have 4K masters made. Then I have to color grade them all. It’s an enormous job.