‘The Story of My Wife’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

Léa Seydoux, Gijs Naber and Louis Garrel headline this English-language literary adaptation directed by Hungarian Golden Bear-winner Ildikó Enyedi (‘On Body and Soul’).

In The Story of My Wife (A feleségem története), the strong auteurist voice of one of Eastern Europe’s most fascinating filmmakers, Hungarian distaff director Ildikó Enyedi (My 20th Century, Simon the Magician, On Body and Soul), seems not only muted but even slightly musty. This adaptation of Milán Füst’s most famous novel, set in the 1920s in Paris, Hamburg and at sea, is divided into chapters and should feel novelistic. Instead, especially its midsection more often feels like an endless feuilleton in which an upright Dutch sea captain and his flighty French wife seem to play a monotonous game of cat and mouse, of flirting with the suspicion of infidelity.

Beautifully if extremely classically upholstered, and with Léa Seydoux as the titular spouse, this could attract some attention from high-end broadcasters and VOD platforms. But cinephiles who are fans of Enyedi’s work will be left wondering whether her idiosyncratic voice took an extended vacation when she made this film.

‘The Story of My Wife’

The Bottom Line

Runs aground.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Gijs Naber, Léa Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Sergio Rubini
Writer-director: Ildikó Enyedi (screenplay based on the novel by Milán Füst)

2 hour 49 minutes

Füst’s novel is a rambling first-person account of the marital life of Dutch sea captain Jakob Störr (Gijs Naber, about as charismatic as a piece of jetsam). His wife is the pretty Frenchwoman Lizzy, who was unknown to him when he proposed to her. The flash proposal was the result of a silly discussion in a café with a business associate (Italian star Sergio Rubini, distractingly dubbed), who dares him to marry the first woman who walks through the door. It probably didn’t hurt that she looks like Seydoux (perfectly adequate), whose round features and golden curls are conveniently emblematic of what people thought the ideal woman should look like in the 1920s.

But in Enyedi’s version, even this lightweight setup doesn’t ring true. Much is made of how honest and upright and set in his ways Störr really is and Naber’s one-note performance further enhances the idea that Jakob’s all work and no fun. He knows how to handle major emergencies at sea but on land he’s awkward and less a daredevil than an old-fashioned bore. So why would someone so serious ever indulge in such a whimsical idea that would alter his entire life so significantly, the life he likes to be as predictable and neatly organized as possible? Sadly, the answer to this question can’t be found in the film; the characters and premise ring false. 

Enyedi, who adapted the novel herself, and her European cast also struggle with the nuances of English. While it’s commendable to see a Dutch actor playing a Dutchman and a Frenchwoman playing a française, the fact that they have to communicate with each other in English causes several problems. Firstly, some of the dialogue doesn’t credibly sound like dialogue that non-native speakers in the 1920s would ever use; it’s the kind of flowery prose only spoken in Europudding literary adaptations. Secondly, so many possible nuances are lost because the actors and director seem more interested in just getting the words out rather than focusing on how the words, pauses and silences can create different shades of meaning. 

Though the script itself is already repetitive, with Jakob’s jealousy and Lizzy’s flirtatious ways coming to a head more often than not, there’s a version of this film with the exact same script that could still be snappier and more layered if everyone understood the potential intricacies of what they were expressing. The lack of light irony, refined humor and spontaneity and freshness in the dialogue makes the film feel much more heavy-handed than a tale like this should be. For most of the nearly three-hour running time, it all plays as droningly serious, which makes the already long film feel much longer.

Technically, the film’s gorgeously assembled, from its cinematography and production design to its costumes and makeup and hair. The classical pieces and Adam Balasz’ original score all sound reassuringly familiar as well. But this doesn’t do the feature any favors either, as everything is so classically designed that a distinct whiff of mothballs seems to always linger when what is really needed is a breath of fresh air, a new take on this kind of overly familiar, stuffy European costume drama. 

Seydoux has the hardest part to play as she’s seen exclusively from her increasingly jealous husband’s point of view. Certainly, she seems to be most in her element when painting the town red with her fun French dandy friend Dedin (Louis Garrel at his Louis Garreliest.) The real issue here is Naber, whose character is already flat on the page and who then brings so little magnetism to the table as an actor that Jakob becomes little more than a still-waters-run-shallow type. The handful of isolated, sublime moments of mise-en-scene that the film contains, such as a scene of intense lovemaking framed through a door or scored to an ever-growing musical crescendo, can’t paper over the fact that the The Story of My Wife as a whole lacks the kind of intoxicating intrigue and energy that can really take you on a journey as a viewer.

For the record, the full onscreen title of the film was The Story of My Wife: The Flounderings of Jakob Störr in Seven Lessons, which suggests how Enyedi took the original novel, whose full title runs The Story of My Wife: The Reminiscences of Captain Störr, and not only imposed her own chapter structure but also added a layer of awkward-English Europudding as a kind of finishing glaze. 

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Gijs Naber, Léa Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Sergio Rubini
Production companies: Inforg, M&M Film, Komplizen Film, Palosanto Films, Pyramide Productions, Rai Cinema, WDR/Arte, Arte France
Writer-Director: Ildikó Enyedi (screenplay based on the novel by Milán Füst)
Producers: Monika Mécs, Erno Mesterhazy, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Flaminino Zadra, Pila Saavdre Perrotta, Stéphane Parthenay, Robin Boespflug-Vonier, Andras Muhi
Director of photography: Marcell Rév
Production designer: Imola Lang
Costume designer: Andrea Flesch
Music: Adam Balasz
Editor: Karoly Szalai
Sales: Film Boutique

2 hour 49 minutes