Garden Spells: Frederick Wiseman on “A Couple”

The documentary maven weighs in on his latest, a rare foray into fiction and a scorching character study of Tolstoy’s wife Sophia.
Leonardo Goi

A Couple

For a filmmaker who’s trained his camera on institutions as disparate as mental asylums, public libraries, and university campuses, no subject seems to have exerted a more lasting fascination on Frederick Wiseman than the human face. A Couple, the nonagenarian’s latest, is no exception. Whatever else it may be, the film is first and foremost a portrait of a visage: Sophia Tolstoy’s. Played by Nathalie Boutefeu, she’s A Couple’s protagonist and sole performer, and Wiseman follows her as she swans into an Eden-like garden, pausing every so often to address her husband Leo, an invisible and mute presence standing somewhere behind the camera and haunting every frame. 

Less a conversation proper than a series of monologues, star-cum-co-writer Boutefeu recites excerpts she and Wiseman stitched together from Sophia’s diaries and the letters the eponymous couple exchanged through the years. Both engrossing and vitriolic, A Couple often unfurls as a sort of j’accuse. Sophia recalls the anxiety she felt as an eighteen-year-old girl getting married to a man twice her age, when she was certain she was “unworthy of such a big and noble being.” We hear of the verbal and physical abuse he subjected her to, of the loneliness and fatigue she suffered as she carried their household (and nine children) on her shoulders. Throughout, Boutefeu’s face serves as a testament to Sophia’s resilience, with eyes that look forever on the brink of tears, but never give in to them.  

A Couple may be an unexpected foray into fiction for Wiseman, but it is not his first. Twenty years ago, the documentary maven teamed up with Catherine Samie for The Last Letter (2002), an adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s 1980 novel Life and Fate, which saw the Comédie Française doyenne recite a missive from a Jewish mother to her faraway son as the Nazis ravaged the Ukrainian ghetto in which she was stranded. Much like that earlier film, A Couple boasts the same stylistic austerity of Wiseman’s nonfiction projects. Indeed, watching his latest (and, at 64 minutes, one of his shortest), it’s not the contrasts between his docs and rare fiction detours that strike one, so much as the continuities. Wiseman and cinematographer John Davey employ different set-ups, toggling between close-ups of Boutefeu and idyllic vistas of the Arcadia she strolls into. But those static shots and monastic compositions aren’t cells. They’re windows inviting us to see Sophia to an extent her husband arguably never did, portals through which her confessions can move freely. Here as in the rest of Wiseman’s filmography, the source of A Couple’s power resides in the friction between the director’s formalism and the raw and poignant material he captures. 

A few days after A Couple premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, I sat with Wiseman to chat about the film’s genesis, its relationship with his wider oeuvre, the Tolstoys, and Emily Dickinson. 

NOTEBOOK: I must confess I’ve been finding it strange to hear people refer to A Couple as a major rupture in your filmography, as if there was an irreconcilable difference between your docs and fiction projects. Anytime I watch your films, the divide between the two seems to be meaningless.  

FREDERICK WISEMAN: And that’s because my documentaries really are fiction films. They may not be staged in the way you’d expect a work of fiction to be, but they are nonetheless staged in the editing. I often discover the film right as I edit it, and that process is completely fictional. The overall structure of the film is completely fictional, and the editing of each sequence is fictional: very often the scenes you see are cut down from an hour to five minutes. I try to maintain the point of view of the original, but it's, you know, it may be [condensed to] the five minutes that I use in the film, or twenty seconds here or there. Fragments selected from all over the rushes for that particular sequence.

NOTEBOOK: How much did you shoot for A Couple?

WISEMAN: Oh, not that much, really. About forty hours. We had a script, and for each sequence we did anywhere from four to six takes. Sometimes it was shot differently, others in the same way. And when it came to the edit, sometimes I would start off using some material from take one, some from take three, then take six… It’s a composite. 

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the more practical differences between your docs and fiction films, how did you feel about having so many different elements under your control this time around? I’m thinking of the lighting, for one, but also the chance to re-shoot… 

WISEMAN: It was different, surely, and it was also rather nice to be able to do it. As for the lighting, however, I must confess we didn’t have particularly elaborate set-ups. Save for the sequences at the beginning and the end of the film, everything was shot outside. We followed the script, but when it came to the editing, I had to find a rhythm, as I felt the story required transitions. Then again, one of the functions of the garden was to provide that kind of transitional material. I collected a lot of shots of Nathalie walking through the garden during the shooting. And then, as we wrapped all the scenes with her, we spent a couple of days afterwards just filming the garden. I knew that I would need to intercut her scenes, though I didn’t yet know where exactly. 

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of your editing process, I was wondering if and how reading might have shaped your approach to filmmaking. 

WISEMAN: Oh, I must say that I’ve read more books than I've seen movies! And I still read more. I don't watch as many films… It's not for me to say whether reading shaped my filmmaking, but I think I've been more influenced—whatever that word means—by the books I've read than by the movies I've seen.

NOTEBOOK: I was asking because I remember you once stating that a text by Helen Vendler on the structure of Emily Dickinson’s poems gave you a new way of approaching film editing. 

WISEMAN: Well, Helen Vendler is a brilliant woman, and her analysis of Dickinson’s poems is a major illustration of what we’d call close reading. I think when I'm editing a movie, particularly a documentary where the material is not written, part of my job as an editor is to figure out what's going on. I have to at the very least deceive myself into thinking that I understand the sequence in order to know whether I want to use it. And if I use it, how I want to cut it, and where I want to place it. Which means I have to feel that I understand what's going on. That's an aspect of close reading. And Helen Vendler is, for me, the supreme example of that. It all comes down to paying attention, basically. Paying attention to everything, down to the smallest details. A gesture. A movement. A tone. She pays close attention to the poems she reads; I do that with the sequences I edit. 

NOTEBOOK: Could we talk about the writing process in A Couple? I’m curious to hear how you and your co-writer and star, Nathalie Boutefeu, went about working together, how you parsed the texts, and if you had some criteria guiding your selections. 

WISEMAN: Nathalie and I have known each other for a number of years, and already worked together. We did a play in 2012, La Belle de Amherst, a monologue based on Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters. She played Emily Dickinson. We kept in touch and continued to discuss new ideas. When we settled for this, we made it a point to read the same texts: Sophia’s diaries and notebooks, and Leo’s letters to her. We would each make selections, then we would meet and go over them together, refining and tossing things along the way. We even made some adjustments to the excerpts that made the cut, changing the order and rewriting a few lines we thought were overblown. Most significantly, we shifted the text into the present, for it to be more accessible and immediate. Once we felt we had gathered enough material we dealt with the structure, the order, and so on. 

That said, I don’t think we ever explicitly discussed a set of criteria to guide our readings and selections. As in, we never made a sort of list of things that we wanted to look out for while parsing the texts. At the risk of stating the obvious, we tried to focus on the sequences that seemed to reveal something about their relationship, their dynamic. There were plenty of those, some more dramatic than others. We ended up with a 32-page script, and we shot more or less in chronological order. 

NOTEBOOK: You’ve often claimed that a major reason behind your fascination with institutions is that these are boundaries: they provide an almost natural limit to the shape and scope of your docs. I was wondering if the same applied here: if the garden in A Couple served a similar purpose.

WISEMAN: I didn’t think about it that way, no, at least not in terms of geographical limitations—the way I would with institutions. I really just thought the garden would be a great place to shoot the film in, that there’d be enough good locations for us to explore. It’s the La Boulaye garden in Belle-Île, France, and belongs to a friend who’s looked after it for the past seventeen years. It’s really quite vast, stretching over six and-a-half hectares. I wanted to stay there for its metaphoric aspects, as well as its physical beauty. 

NOTEBOOK: I remember thinking those scenes seemed to work as a kind of punctuation, as if each glimpse of the garden was a comma, a pause between different paragraphs. 

WISEMAN: Yes! I mean, from a structural point of view, that's exactly what I was after. Had the film been just one long monologue, or one monologue after another, it wouldn't have worked. That said, those shots serve a variety of purposes. Sure, they act as punctuation, but they’re also there to give you a sense of the physical beauty of the place you walk into. The garden, and all the life it teems with, becomes another character in the movie.

NOTEBOOK: It’s all a bucolic, idyllic world, but there’s also something spectral hovering above it. You juxtapose these Monet-like vistas with close-ups of insects and other creatures fighting each other. Of all things, it reminded me of that moment in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams when Herzog muses on “the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder” of the Peruvian jungle. 

WISEMAN: Exactly! I’m so glad you came to that conclusion. The garden is a Darwinian struggle for existence. The animals you see are all killing and living off each other. And the violence happening on a micro scale inside the garden speaks to the existence and practice of human violence outside of it. If there’s a parallel to be made between A Couple and The Last Letter, my previous fiction feature, that may be it: the intimations of physical violence the two films deal with. Except the violence described in The Last Letter is certainly not the same you witness here. 

NOTEBOOK: Was there ever a version of A Couple in which you considered including a (Leo) Tolstoy character together with Boutefeu’s Sophia?

WISEMAN: Yes. At one point I thought I was going to bring in a man to read a letter Leo wrote to Sophia—a horrible and horribly violent letter—and we’d have him read it over the credits, in voiceover. But then I realized there was nothing in that letter that wasn't already in the film. And we replaced it with the Mendelssohn piano piece you hear at the end. 

NOTEBOOK: I thought Leo’s elision made Sophia’s monologues all the more powerful.

WISEMAN: Especially as she starts to address him, yes, and she stares at the camera. She’s thinking about him, she’s worried. He’s a constant presence throughout. In his writings, Tolstoy displayed an extraordinary understanding of human nature—his women characters, especially. Just think of Anna Karenina, the way he’s able to place you in her world, her mind… And I was intrigued by the fact that someone who possessed such a complex understanding of human behavior was not able to apply that in his own life. Still, it’s not like Leo has no voice here. His point of view had to be presented, and we did that through the recitation of and quotations from the letters he sent her. 

I like the monologue form because it's the complete opposite of what I do in the documentaries. I have to create a world there too, of course. But the world-building you have in a movie like In Jackson Heights or Ex Libris or City Hall is different; you meet hundreds and hundreds of people there, and the universe that those films create comes from seeing all those people. This is the reverse. The effort in A Couple was to conjure a world through the experiences of one person. Ever heard that Emerson quote, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”? Who says I can’t try out new things? 

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