The Story of My Wife, 2021.
Written and directed by Ildikó Enyedi.
Starring Gijs Naber, Léa Seydoux, and Louis Garrel.
Sea captain Jacob Störr makes a bet in a café with a friend to marry the first woman who enters the place. And in walks Lizzy.
Ildikó Enyedi follows up her outstanding 2017 Oscar-nominated drama On Body and Soul with an epic adaptation of Milán Füst’s 1942 novel “The Story of My Wife.” Yet this handsomely-lensed, well-acted romance self-sabotages its more appealing elements with a distended runtime that’s in sore need of whittling down.
During a stint at sea, Captain Jakob Störr (Gijs Naber) suffers a bout of intestinal discomfort and is peculiarly informed by the ship’s chef that marrying a woman might be the curative he’s looking for. Once back on dry land, Jakob meets an associate for coffee, with whom he impulsively makes a bet that he’ll marry the next woman who enters the café. That woman happens to be Lizzy (Léa Seydoux), who initially agrees to marry Jakob as a pretence for shooing away a suitor, only to then commit for real.
There’s no getting around the silliness of the setup, which sounds better-suited to the logline of a breezy Netflix romcom. As the primer for a 169-minute drama from an auteur of world cinema, it’s at once head-scratching and oddly appealing – at least for a time.
“Please be my wife, I’m dead serious,” Jakob tells Lizzy during their initial meet-cute, but after playing an amusing game of strip poker and becoming physically familiar with one another, the pair’s speedy marriage eases into the staid ritual of time together and time apart, as Jakob routinely takes off for his next at-sea gig.
But each time Jakob returns home from a trip away, he can’t resist suspecting that something’s off with his gorgeous wife, that she absolutely, positively must be filling his absence with another man – no matter his own straying from the marriage bed. How else could Lizzy possibly be happy?
Though there is a sturdy portrayal of poisonous jealousy and toxic masculinity lurking within Enyedi’s film, her adaptation of Füst’s novel too often spins around in dramatic circles over its near-three-hour length. How many times can we watch one man stare with longing concern at his wife while she talks to other men and women? The pathetic, basically pathological envy becomes tiresome by pic’s mid-point, as does the passive-aggressive back-and-forth between husband and wife.
It’s made abundantly clear the pair aren’t much happy by the end of act one, so having to watch them live in on-off misery for another two hours makes for a frustrating experience sure to fast erode audience empathy and investment. The emotional core of the movie isn’t particularly persuasive at the best of times, and that so much of the central conflict is meted out through molasses-slow confrontations doesn’t much help.
There is an undercurrent of suspense to their increasingly fraught relationship at least, which flirts with the possibility of a dishier turn into abject thriller territory, but sadly these hints are strictly red herrings perhaps intended to keep desperate viewers strung along to the finish. It isn’t simply that The Story of My Wife is long, but that it ramps up and down on a whim, slogging through its snoozier, been-there-already drama while rushing through moments which feel more important.
The extended dialogues, of which there are many throughout, range from poetic to prosaic, and by the time the third delineated waxing on existential dread has played out, audiences can’t really be blamed for feeling worn out. Interjections of comic relief also feel awkward at times, while the more purple prose on offer occasionally lands in unintentionally laughable territory.
The film’s strongest dialogue is not in the loaded arguments but actually the cutesy, witty back-and-forth between lovers. Though Naber and Seydoux hardly make a romantic pairing for the ages, there’s just about enough here to sell the premise, even if the characters as written are fairly thin.
Seydoux really is the hero of the movie, her initial amused incredulity and cocksure, sexy smoking belying her character’s greater complexities, as are revealed later. She helps anchor the film when it’s struggling, but even her efforts can’t fix a fundamentally wonky narrative framework.
Enyedi’s film is at least a feast to drink in for all of its many, many minutes; Malcolm & Marie DP Marcell Rév’s exquisite, precisely framed shots deserve to be hung on a much better project, but at least allow the time to pass more pleasantly. The same can’t quite be said for Ádám Balázs’ toe-curlingly earnest musical score, which lends a treacly quality to the story’s already over-egged melodrama.
Given the painfully low stakes of its story, Enyedi’s latest is a bit of an endurance trial, and one which could certainly have arrived at its ending – heavy-handed and accidentally laugh-worthy though it is – with an hour less of baggage. While studio executives should certainly leave auteurs alone, it’s genuinely surprising that this film made it to TIFF without any edits following its ho-hum Cannes premiere.
There’s probably a decent two-hour romantic drama encased within Ildikó Enyed’s disappointing turgid The Story of My Wife, which at 169 minutes in length smothers its keener merits into oblivion.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.