TIFF21 REVIEW: A feleségem története [The Story of My Wife] [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 169 minutes
    Release Date: September 23rd, 2021 (Hungary)
    Studio: Pyramide Distribution
    Director(s): Ildikó Enyedi
    Writer(s): Ildikó Enyedi / Milán Füst (novel)

You must accommodate life or else it will punish you.


It was a joke. Captain Jakob Störr (Gijs Naber) is cajoled into meeting his con artist friend Kodor (Sergio Rubini) at a fancy restaurant while on shore leave to help spy on a business partner double-crossing him. Störr had recently been told by his ship’s cook that the stone in his gut was a longing for love rather than food poisoning, so Kodor’s prompt for fake small talk inevitably leads to the captain declaring his need for a wife. The guy is only half listening, but nobody can hear what comes next and not pay attention. Störr says his job keeping him away from home so many months of the year means the lucky woman could be anyone. He’ll even propose to whoever walks through the door next.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Dutchman is guilted into paying for Kodor’s drink before the latter scurries away, so he sticks around to finish his own when a pretty Frenchwoman named Lizzy (Léa Seydoux) enters the frame. Störr uses the proposal as his opening line and it’s funny enough to earn him a seat before she nudges him into helping ward off another potential suitor. Long story short: the marriage happens and he’s practically out to sea the following day. The stone disappears, his apartment gets redecorated, and it initially appears as though their whirlwind affair might last. Except this is a very long story. Almost three hours long. So don’t be surprised when the honeymoon phase’s end leads Störr’s pragmatist to jealousy.

And thus begins The Story of My WifeIldikó Enyedi‘s adaptation of Milán Füst‘s novel (with some “Flying Dutchman” thrown in). The book subtitles things with the word “Reminiscences” while the film uses “Flounderings” to describe the roundabout route Störr takes post-nuptials. As a bachelor he had no allusions about the presumed infidelity any relationship with an absentee husband would spark. He agreed it was part of the deal and, to his credit, lived up to that sentiment. When discovering Lizzy may have been with a drunk man he never met, Störr looks the other way. Why not? She’s with him when he’s home and it’s not like they really know each other outside of the bedroom. More time together equals stronger love, though. And that equals possessiveness.

The first hour or so is quite captivating as a result because we peer into what looks like an open marriage. Störr gets what he wanted when popping the question and Lizzy is free to do whatever she desires when he’s away. The introduction to a potential lover (Louis Garrel‘s Dedin), however, changes things. Suddenly “his” time is being sacrificed. While Störr is left to converse with Lizzy’s friends, she’s off flirting with this well-connected loafer mere feet away. Does Störr have a leg to stand on considering the precedent he set earlier? No. Do we sympathize with him? Again, no. But it is fun to watch and predict whether Störr will finally blow or not—especially the more we see him being manipulated by everyone around him.

Störr’s attempts to turn the tables backfire every time. A play at making Dedin jealous earns him a cut under his eye from Lizzy. A desire to threaten Dedin leads to a job opportunity. Eventually each decision Störr makes has less to do with expanding his career and more to do with keeping a vigilant eye on his wife. Yet doing so only makes her grow tired of his domineering attitude. The easy, free-wheeling nature of the joke that thrust them together is all but gone and his desperate pursuit to rekindle it through proximity constantly leaves him alone anyway. Lizzy would be dumb not to tell him what he wants to hear only to renege at the last second. She has him eating out of her hands.

And then comes the switch through a change in scenery. Eventually we’re wondering if Störr had simply been jumping to conclusions the whole time. Maybe Lizzy, Dedin, Kodor, and practically every other character in the film hasn’t been manipulating the captain after all. Perhaps he’s just been drowning in deceitful thoughts to the point where his brain can’t process anything but betrayal. Talk about a cursed man destined to sail an uncontrollably turbulent sea of his own making. He might have had it all and yet his petty machismo reared its head to ruin everything. It even leads him to stray as beautiful women (Luna Wedler‘s Grete and Jasmine Trinca‘s Viola) seemingly throw themselves at him. His lust, however, is no match for his faithful heart.

I think either possibility—Lizzy being unfaithful or Störr sabotaging his happiness—could have made a great film alone. Conversely, three hours of both perpetually alternating back and forth to render the inherent intrigue into monotonous repetition does not. It also doesn’t help that the original unspoken dynamic makes it so we can never fault Lizzy for wanting happiness. Things get muddled when divorce is bandied about and violent arguments turning calm becomes the standard, but everything is built upon that construct and thus always ensures Störr is the one holding the blame. I get the metaphor of love being the ocean and this captain being unable to moor, but it gets lost a bit when we’re made to watch the literal fireworks over and over again.

It’s hard not to acknowledge how good the pieces are, though. Seydoux is fantastic. The way she needles her husband with a playful severity is wonderfully drawn because you know he’s going to explode only to have her look back, unfazed and in control. Naber is quite good too in the opposite direction. He’s forever moving from light and carefree to dark and vengeful with little room in between. Such extremes make his Störr easily malleable when out of his element. His determination on the water can move mountains, but he’s barely able to stand in place onshore. Put those performances in sumptuous period set dressing with alluring cinematography and Enyedi is firing on all cylinders but one: length. The script is simply too unwieldy to ignore.


photography:
courtesy of TIFF

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