By Andrea Chase
There is a quiet desperation running through Tom Dolby’s The Artist’s Wife. It creates the sort of cinematic tension that Mr. Dolby and his muse, Lena Olin in the title role, used like a fine chiaroscuro throughout the drama of a genius slowly losing his mind, and the devoted wife who has subsumed her life to his genius for 25 years. With that chapter of her life ending, choices she made in the past are thrown into sharp relief as the prospect of a life lived solely for herself proves a daunting leap into the unknown.
They are Richard (Bruce Dern) and Claire Smythson, a fixture on the New York art scene, though sequestered in their starkly modern home in the Hamptons. Claire is coming to terms with Richard’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and nurturing him through his work on what they both silently acknowledge will be his last gallery show, one that has been years in the making. As the deadline looms, and the pressure builds on what will be the capstone to Richard’s legacy, Claire reaches out to his estranged daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance), and rediscovers her own passion for the painting that she gave up in order to allow her husband the freedom to create his own canvases. And to be the immensely difficult personality without the boundaries that mere mortals must endure.
The story is a showcase for the remarkable performance from Olin, who is as tender as she is ferocious and as strong as she is vulnerable. There are such subtle shades to her performance, that Dolby, quite rightly, spends much of the film’s running time focused solely on her face, which has a profound eloquence, and a visual vocabulary as rich and varied as a thesaurus. In a scene of bickering that goes from bombastic to conciliatory in the course of a few seconds, you can see Claire’s thought processes as she tries to make sense of the latest outburst. Is it his pure cussedness and ego (a trait that originally attracted her), a flash of inspiration that leads him to pour orange juice over breakfast cereal, or dementia that will eventually take him from her while leaving only the husk behind? Or the sudden, yet superbly subtle, deflation when Stephanie Powers, as a hugely successful and larger-than-life Italian artist showers her with compliments, then tells her how smart she was to get out of an art world that is so hostile to women.
Dolby with his co-writers Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian spare us none of the savagery of a family for whom mere dysfunction would be aspirational. The scenes of a daughter trying to put her decades of resentment behind her as time runs out are heartbreaking and a swift kick to the solar plexus. Dern is relentless in his character’s essential unlikability, in refusing to court the audience’s sympathies as a brilliant mind slowly crumbling away. When he lowers his guard, retreating into the past, he is still not sympathetic, but the pain he feels has an acute authenticity. And there is Claire, with nothing to guide her, trying to distract and appease with a smile even though she knows that it’s hopeless, but is unwilling to sit by idly.
There is also the joyful Claire, squeezing oil paint between her fingers, smearing on her clothes, and finally attacking a canvas of her own, and then another, sharing the secret of her return to art with only her step-grandson’s babysitter, Danny (Avan Jogio), a toothsome aspiring musician who finds a sympathetic rapport with Claire.
The Artist’s Wife is a carefully written work rife with foreshadowing and irony as characters who challenge us with their rough edges come to grips with what life has thrown at them. It also considers the difference between art as creativity and art as a commodity without the usual, and cliché, tropes of venal gallery owners and clueless collectors. By refusing to compromise about life’s messiness, it makes an art of chaos in elegantly composed vignettes filmed with a chilly beauty and gives us an ending that is maddening, yet absolutely true to everything that has preceded it.
Screening now in Virtual Cinemas (where independent art theaters share in the ticket price) and on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video.
The Artist’s Wife is a Strand Releasing release. 95 minutes. Rated R for Language, Some Graphic Nudity, and Brief Sexuality.
Listen to Andrea Chase’s interview with Tom Dolby about The Artist’s Wife, digital snow, Grape Nuts®, and having Lena Olin as a partner on PRX.
Andrea Chase has been reviewing movies on radio, television, in print, and via the internet in the San Francisco Bay area for over 20 years. She says, “After moving here from Louisiana many years ago, I received my film education the way nature and the Lumiere Brothers intended–in movie theaters, both the mainstream venues that showcased the latest from La La Land, and the art houses that were more numerous in days gone by. They gave me a thorough grounding in current and classic cinema from all over the world and from the silents to the latest cutting edge Hong Kong flick.”
She is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle, as well as the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and has been heard on non-commercial syndicated radio since 1996, and on British Forces Broadcasting throughout the world. Currently, she is the Movie Chick on KGO-Radio’s Maureen Langan show, her series, Behind the Scenes, is part of PRX.org with over 350 episodes, and she contribute reviews to The New Fillmore. Both Rotten Tomatoes and the MRQE link to her site, KillerMovieReviews.com, making the world safe for film lovers since 2002 with reviews and interviews.