Throughout the 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival slate. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up your virtual tickets.
All artists — whether a novelist, sculptor, musician, poet, or painter — have their muses. It’s an idea dating all the way back to Greek and Roman mythology, originating with stories about the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne presiding over the arts and sciences. As the sources of inspiration and wisdom, muses have received credit for getting the creative juices flowing for centuries. But what if, suddenly, everything changed? What if the muse were suddenly not needed? It’s the question at the center of director Tom Dolby’s The Artist’s Wife, a wintry portrait of a wilting marriage and a withering career that interrogates the male-dominated art industry from the inside out.
Claire (Lena Olin) has stood beside her husband, Richard (Bruce Dern), ever since his previous wife abandoned ship years earlier. It might be a little difficult sometimes (and extremely strenuous occasionally), but she’s committed to their relationship for the long haul — much to the chagrin of Richard’s daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance), from whom he and Claire have been estranged for quite some time now. A former painter herself, Claire gave up a promising career in the art world once she entered the orbit of Richard, a globally recognized abstract artist, and she hasn’t picked up a brush since they tied the knot.
Recently, however, something is not right with Richard. He’s starting to get ornery, forgetful, and mean. It’s not like him. Sure, he’s never been the most agreeable person, but he’s never acted like this before. Offensive. Irrational. Cruel. After a visit to a specialist, the couple learns that Richard has Alzheimer’s. With the man she fell in love with fading fast and an impending deadline for what will likely be his final show, Claire finds herself returning to her artistic toolkit as both an escape from the marriage and a way forward for the couple.
One thing that remains abundantly clear throughout The Artist’s Wife is that the world Claire and Richard once knew no longer exists. Not just in regard to Richard’s fading memories or the crumbling creative field in which they once flourished, but also society as a whole. They’ve been left behind. A young pharmacist tries her best to coach Claire on how to use the “chip thing” when paying for Richard’s prescriptions. She opts to pay with cash instead. Later, a juvenile grocery-store clerk scolds her for biting into a granola bar while she shops. It’s undoubtedly something she’s used to doing, but it’s now something she definitely won’t be doing again. Richard’s students are palpably uncomfortable with his old-school teaching methods. Even the gallery shows in which they used to find solace are now abrasive and avant-garde — too modern for them.
In Claire’s eyes, Richard is actually fortunate to have an escape from this reality (even if it is against his will). For her, existing in this world — one in which everything she thought she knew has been left behind — is a kind of suffering. We see her spiral, barreling toward a late-in-life crisis as her last remaining relic of the old way of life — Richard himself — leaves her in the dust like everyone and everything else. Nobody ever wants to be forced to reinvent their entire existence, let alone in their final years.
Director Tom Dolby — who also doubles as co-writer alongside Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian — maintains an excellent focus on Claire’s plight, largely relegating Richard’s to the background. The tale of a complicated and aging male artist stricken with illness and a creative drought is one that’s been told countless times before, and The Artist’s Wife is better for shifting to a different perspective. Not to discredit Dern’s performance (which is truly great), but Dolby makes it obvious that this is a showcase for Olin first and foremost. She excels here, portraying the complexities of her situation convincingly and actually managing to make the character of Richard more sympathetic through her depiction of Claire’s unmistakable love. The Artist’s Wife is a striking canvas that allows a powerhouse performer to fearlessly show her stuff.
Virtual tickets for The Artist's Wife are available to MO and IL viewers from Nov. 5 - 22 and can be purchased here.