With her unusual, slightly disconcerting and quite daring love story “Body and Soul”, which was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2017, the new film by Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi no longer has much in common – except perhaps that it is again about the Love acts. “Body and Soul” already demanded a lot of patience from the audience with its two-hour running time and the rather leisurely narrative rhythm, but made up for it with original dramaturgical and formal ideas.
“My wife’s story“In comparison, it almost lapses into a lethargic state, which also lasts for almost three hours. The novel of the same name by the Hungarian writer Milán Füst, published in 1942, served as inspiration. According to her own statement, Enyedi was particularly fascinated by the complexity and humor of the original text – it’s just a shame that neither was carried over to the film. Rather, the result is a pale study of male jealousy and a schematic reconstruction of the 1920s in Europe, which presumably makes too many compromises due to the involvement of four production countries (Hungary, Germany, Italy, France).
Jakob Störr (Gijs Naber) is a captain on merchant ships. Sunk in deep melancholy, he is advised to just get married – and so he accepts the proposal to marry the next woman who comes to the café. In this way, Jakob meets the attractive Lizzy (Léa Seydoux), who does not allow herself to be asked for long. Because Lizzy is French, the two of them move their center of life to Paris, whereby Jakob is often on the road for months on end. Contrary to expectations, however, it is not Lizzy who suffers from the repeated long separation phases, but Jakob himself.
At first, the stoic Dutchman hardly shows any emotion, but then he becomes more and more jealous during his short stays at home when he sees how Lizzy moves independently of him in her large circle of friends. In particular, the proximity to Dedin (Louis Garrel), an intellectual, formerly wealthy French, becomes a thorn in Jakob’s side. In order to separate the two, he decides to move with his wife. The new job on land in the Port of Hamburg, however, does not fulfill his job and is a financial burden for the couple …
Of sets and puppets
“The Story of My Wife” is a prime example of a failed literary film adaptation. Inner monologues and experience reports in particular run the great risk of becoming dry, unimaginative and tedious when they are heaved onto the big screen. To counteract this, the monotonous narrative voice of the main character would have required a more dense staging of the external events as a contrast. By repeating increasingly similar motifs and the slower rhythm, the director certainly maximizes the feeling of powerlessness of a noisy and helpless man, whose marriage resembles a vicious circle – at the same time the film and its love story appear just as lifeless as uninspired.
In terms of content and form, the film hardly offers any interesting developments. Instead, Enyedi takes an extremely conventional approach, perhaps out of excessive respect for the treasured original, for example by telling scene after scene and paying great attention to opulent furnishings that evoke the era, but rather clichéd and thus rendered stiffly. A similar stiffness also lays itself over the play and interaction of the quite extensive ensemble of actors. The use of English as a compromise language certainly also contributes to this. Here the director lacked the courage to calmly expect a little more from the audience and also to reproduce the European diversity linguistically. In a similar way, she does not know how to use the different locations for added cultural value, which is why they sink down to a simple setting in which the figures only look more like marionettes.
The film definitely lacks lightness and irony, which can only be seen in individual characters such as that of the quirky Hamburg landlord (Josef Hader), but where it is so isolated that it seems too wanted. Instead of concentrating completely on the uninspiring inner workings of the ship’s captain, one should have taken a step back and treated the plot with a somewhat broader, possibly even societal focus – especially with regard to the gender roles of the time, there was a lot in it: Jakob had the usual image of the submissive wife in his head before he met Lizzy – and was then fascinated by her precisely because of her independence and her cheeky demeanor. But even that doesn’t change the fact that after all he expects loyalty and devotion from her …
Conclusion: Through the new film by Ildikó Enyedi, you literally torment yourself for three hours while the inner workings of a silent and also not very interesting man are negotiated. Against the backdrop of the 1920s, “The Story of My Wife” tells a banal story of love and jealousy with a promising European ensemble, from which, however, no actor or actress really comes into their own.
We saw My Wife’s Story at the Cannes Film Festival where it was shown as part of the official competition.