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Examining the Regrettably Modern Marriage of Leo Tolstoy and Sophia Tolstaya

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Frederick Wiseman set aside the documentaries he’s known for to work on “A Couple,” a solo drama putting Leo Tolstoy’s much-burdened wife at its center.

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In the film, Nathalie Boutefeu wears her hair in braids pinned atop her head with a mass of yellow flowers behind her.

Nathalie Boutefeu as Sophia Tolstaya in “A Couple.”Credit…Zipporah Films

Nov. 11, 2022, 11:00 a.m. ET

“I work without respite,” Sophia Tolstaya says in Frederick Wiseman’s “A Couple.” “I suffer from the impossibility of achieving what I want to do.”

Living with Leo Tolstoy — who wrote his greatest works, including “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace,” during their 1862-1910 marriage — is no picnic, and Tolstaya’s reflections can sound very recognizable to a modern ear. She can’t get everything done, and feels constantly guilty about that, yet endures a husband who neither shares the family burdens fairly nor recognizes her full self. Married at 18, she helped run a 4,000-acre estate, raised and educated their children (eight of 13 survived to adulthood), and copied and revised hundreds of pages of Tolstoy’s manuscripts (as well as writing her own).

The contemporary resonance appealed to Wiseman, better known for his 43 nonfiction feature films chronicling communities and institutions of every stripe, including 1967’s “Titicut Follies” and, most recently, “City Hall,” in 2020. “A Couple” is a rare foray into fiction narrative for the filmmaker, though about 20 years ago, he directed Catherine Samie in “The Last Letter,” an adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.”

“A Couple,” which opens Friday at Film Forum, in New York, follows Tolstaya (played by the French actress Nathalie Boutefeu) as she ruminates on their marriage — as well as the depth of their love — during walks through the verdant country and seaside.

Wiseman and Boutefeu distilled Tolstaya’s diaries and Tolstoy’s writings into a screenplay, putting her experiences into a vivid present tense. Wiseman had previously directed Boutefeu in a Paris stage production of “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s play about Emily Dickinson, which proved to be a good warm-up.

The film is Wiseman’s first production after the death of his own wife of 65 years, and the director, 92, sat for an interview in September at the Venice Film Festival, where “A Couple” premiered. He spoke about devoting oneself to art at the expense of family, creating worlds through monologues and directing as performance. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Frederick Wiseman at the Venice Film Festival. The documentarian rarely ventures into fiction.Credit…Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

What led you to Sophia Tolstaya’s diaries?

Nathalie Boutefeu and I were both reading Tolstoy, and the idea came up. I had read Tolstoy before, but I didn’t know anything about his domestic life. Sophia has a couple of 800-page volumes of diaries, and she also wrote a couple of novels. And the point of the novels is the heroine’s wish for a normal relationship with a man where he talks to her, where they share responsibilities and the care of the children. She wants what I consider the normal participation of a husband, which, according to her, she never got.

Did you and Boutefeu have different perspectives on the material?

Well, we had no fights about it. We had lots of long conversations, and we each selected passages, then we would winnow it down. At one point, I thought maybe we should use the Tolstoy dialogue but make it a contemporary couple. And Nathalie, quite correctly, thought we should stay with the Tolstoys. It adds an interesting perspective on the issue of the artist in his personal life. Tolstoy had such a vast comprehension of human behavior. I don’t know if I, as a man, have the right to say it, but his understanding of women in everything he wrote is extraordinary. The 30 pages in “Anna Karenina” before she throws herself on the tracks — you really feel you’re inside her mind.

His inability to transfer that to his behavior is fascinating to me, because it’s not just Tolstoy, it’s all of us, in one way or another. Our behavior doesn’t always reflect our intellectual interests or so-called understanding. The discrepancy between the two is very marked in this case, because you have the record of what he understands in the characters he’s created, and you also have a written record, both from him and from Sophia, of their behavior.

From her account, it sounds like he was almost incapable of changing.

It’s complicated because saying “not able to do anything about it” may not be true. Maybe it’s not wanting to do anything about it, or feeling you can’t do anything about it. But it indirectly poses the whole issue of behavior change.

“A Couple” is based in part on the diaries of Sophia Tolstaya.Credit…Zipporah Films

Sophia Tolstaya quotes him saying he devotes all of himself to his writing, not to his family.

I think anybody who’s involved in the arts knows the temptation and sometimes the actuality of being totally immersed and ignoring everything else. Some people work out a more sensible balance than he did. In the beginning, they did have a very passionate relationship. But when they first got married, when they had a dinner party, he would also insist that they each read from their diaries. It sounds like public group therapy.

Both “A Couple” and your last fiction film, “The Last Letter” (2003), take the form of monologues. What brings you back to that form?

And the plays that I have directed, with the possible exception of [Samuel Beckett’s] “Happy Days,” are all monologues. So I seem to be attracted to monologues. The Emily Dickinson is a monologue, too. The reason I tell myself I’m attracted to monologues is that in documentaries, I try to create a world, and sometimes there are hundreds of people in it, like “In Jackson Heights,” “City Hall” or “National Gallery,” if you count the spectators coming in. In a monologue, I’m trying to create a world with one person. So in an abstract sense, they’re connected. At least in my mind.

How did it feel to be directing fiction as opposed to following and observing in the documentaries?

I liked it. If I didn’t like the way a scene was shot, or there was something in the performance that could be changed, we did it again. That’s normal for a fiction film, but it isn’t normal for the way I work. But when you’re directing an actor or actors, it’s also a performance by the director.

What does that performance consist of?

You have to always act as if you know what you’re doing, when perhaps you don’t.

Did any of your documentaries come to mind while making “A Couple”? Afterward, I thought of the raw case studies of couples in your “Domestic Violence” films, which observe painful relationships close-up in the context of court hearings and counseling at a shelter.

I don’t think I thought much about forging a connection between other films. But in the experience of making the “Domestic Violence” movies, I learned an enormous amount. How people are bound to each other in a destructive relationship. A lot of people are bound together in that way and there’s no physical violence, but one person needs to control the other. I have observed relationships that had nothing to do with the courts or social workers or shelters or anything like that. Perhaps they should.

Was any of “A Couple” resonant for you at all?

It’s not autobiographical, but I think a lot of the experiences in the film are similar to experiences people I know have had. A friend of mine saw it in Paris, and she said to me after the movie, “Today’s my wedding anniversary. How am I going to go home?”

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