Venice 2022: Frederick Wiseman’s Boring Poetry Slam ‘Un Couple’
by Alex Billington
September 2, 2022
For the last few years, I’ve been complaining to colleagues about how film festivals too often fill their line-up with films that are in no way innovative or interesting. Nowadays they end up showing many dry, tedious, dull features that are just so slow and meandering and abstract that many critics of course lose theirs mind over, while everyone else falls asleep within the first 10 minutes. Un Couple is the epitome of this kind of monotonous film that does not belong at any film festival and is ultimately an annoyingly boring and useless creation. It’s nothing more than a 60 minute performance of a poem (or technically, letters) intercut with some stock footage shots of flowers and nature. Huh? Why is this playing at the Venice Film Festival? This “film” doesn’t belong here. It’s not often I get so upset at a film that I write an intensely negative review, but this one bothered me so much and I can’t help speaking my mind about it. Even if I’m the only one who feels this way, I have to express my thoughts to put them to rest to move on and exorcise this film from my mind.
Un Couple, which is French for – you guessed it – A Couple, is the very first narrative film from acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. He is an exceptional director who has made many superb doc films over his illustrious 50+ year career, but in this case, this is not so much a feature film that belongs at a film festival but a museum piece that is a better fit for conventional art galleries and special exhibitions. It’s based on and features the writings of Sophia Tolstoy, wife of prolific Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who was married to the writer for 36 years – they had 13 children, only 9 of whom survived. But he wasn’t that faithful and she longed for him while he really didn’t care much for her, because that is what it was like in those days, I guess. French actress Nathalie Boutefeu reads these letters, and pretends to write one in one scene, while standing awkwardly alone in various places in nature on the French seaside. That’s it. All she does is just read, read, read. It’s barely a performance, more of a recitation, one that belongs on stage or at a poetry slam not on the screen. If only there was anything more here it might be slightly enjoyable, but nope.
After listening to her whine over and over about how much she loves him oh so passionately, but he doesn’t love her, I just couldn’t care anymore. Part of the problem is the mediocre delivery from Boutefeu, who adds the slightest amount of emotion to some lines, but not much. If this was being performed on stage or at a live event, an actress could take these letters and turn them into powerful and affecting words. But watching her on the screen is not at all moving or riveting or thrilling. None of that emotion comes through, and there are so many cuts where she’s miraculously standing at another location, it prevents the film from building up or flowing as she goes on to talk about every dull moment of her loveless life… Perhaps this is because Wisemen is not that skilled at directing actors? He’s a doc director who is much more skilled at placing the camera somewhere and capturing real moments of people living their lives. Wisemen is known for making documentaries that run for three or even four hours, but this is remarkably just over one hour in total. As my colleague John Bleasdale stated nicely, “How can an hour long movie be longer than a four hour movie?”
In terms of innovation, this film couldn’t be more generic and unimpressive. A woman reciting letters while standing in nature is not innovative. Shots of her standing there and talking over and over is not innovative. Including lovely but otherwise standard shots of flowers and trees and the surroundings spliced in is not innovative. What has Wisemen done here that is unique or compelling or intriguing or entertaining? I can’t find any other more suitable word to describe this film than the cliche yet entirely accurate: boring. If one really wants to hear about Sophia Tolstoy’s life and her experience as “un couple” with Leo, they might as well just find this text and read it for themselves on their own time. Please don’t make anyone sit through your out-loud “performance” of these letters, though, as they might end up falling asleep or going to lunch before you even have time to get to Page 4. I am sure some people will be moved by and enamored with this film, which is no surprise. That’s totally fine, but it would make more sense to show this at museums rather than make film festival attendees waste an hour sitting through something that can’t really be called a film.