Striking a Balance
Giving our all to a beloved partner is certainly an admirable ambition, one that many of us strive for in hopes of it creating a state of mutual love and support. It’s widely believed such a connection can benefit each spouse, yielding both a flourishing relationship and a foundation for significant personal growth and development. But at what point does such devotion to another become unhealthy, leading to a lopsided bond? That’s a question explored in the new romantic drama, “The Artist’s Wife” (web site, trailer).
For years, onetime-aspiring artist Claire Smythson (Lena Olin) has committed herself to supporting and promoting the painting career of her husband, Richard (Bruce Dern). It’s an effort that has paid off in many ways, too, as it has helped her remarkably talented spouse become an affluent and renowned icon in the abstract art world. And publicly he generously credits Claire for much of his success. From all appearances, it would seem that this is an arrangement that has worked well for both of them, as it has brought Richard acclaim while providing Claire with a comfortable life. However, as we all know, looks can be deceiving.
For starters, to be able to help Richard build his career, Claire gave up her own pursuit of becoming a painter, a gesture she quietly seems to regret, despite efforts to downplay her feelings. From what we see of her work, though, that could be viewed as a lamentable decision; she appears to possess a tremendous talent of her own, one that’s gone untapped and unrecognized in the shadow of her husband’s accomplishments. And, as she gets on in years, she’s beginning to look back on that move with some misgivings.
Those misgivings are driven in part by her aging husband’s failing health. Richard appears to be in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and the condition is starting to exacerbate some of his less-than-flattering qualities. His temperamental, capricious and egotistical nature can be difficult enough to deal with in itself, but, now that he’s been afflicted by an illness that carries its own degree of unpredictability, he’s become quite a handful to deal with. These circumstances call for even more of Claire’s time and attention, impinging not only on her ability to follow her own pursuits, but also to attend to the routine, mundane activities of everyday life. To call her situation exhausting would indeed be an understatement.
But Claire’s challenges don’t end there. Given Richard’s declining health, she tries reaching out to his daughter from his first marriage, Angela (Juliet Rylance), from whom he has been estranged for years. As a single mother raising a young son, Gogo (Ravi Cabot-Conyers), with the help of a live-in caretaker, Danny (Avan Jogia), Angela opposes contact of any kind with her father, despite his failing condition and any of Claire’s overtures to smooth relations between them while time remains.
And then there’s Richard, who brings additional challenges to the table. As his condition worsens, he’s unable to carry through on his obligations as he once was able to. His biggest challenge is creating the works for a new gallery show, one widely considered to be his last. However, with the deadline looming, his inspiration appears to have abandoned him, and he’s running out of time to come up with the pieces promised to an increasingly impatient gallery owner (Tonya Pinkins). On top of this, Richard’s progressively unpredictable behavior in the university painting class he teaches – most notably profanity-laden diatribes leveled against his students’ works – has placed his position in jeopardy. His frequent outbursts and tantrums try the patience of everyone around him, but especially Claire as she attempts to offer comfort and reassurance in the face of his growing anguish and frustration.
Needless to say, this all creates a rather full plate for the ever-devoted wife. But how much longer can she hold up under these conditions, especially with pressure mounting from both Richard and everyone else? Circumstances make her wonder whether she’ll be able to keep up with everything, let alone make a meaningful difference. She increasingly reflects on whether everything she has done for her husband has been worth it, both in terms of personal, vocational and even romantic satisfaction. But, despite these conditions, she’s not without support, such as the sage advice given to her by a flamboyant old friend from the arts community, Ada Risi (Stefanie Powers). The question is, of course, will she take it to heart?
As the situation intensifies, Claire is faced with some hard choices. Can she help Richard in the ways he needs it, or is it a lost cause? Can she help mend the fences between a long-alienated father and daughter? And is she willing to finally address the fulfillment of her own long-overdue overlooked needs? Perhaps it’s possible, but doing so may require some bold creative steps of her own, some that could finally allow her to become an “artist” in her own right – and in ways that are unexpected and unconventional at that.
Having a loving partner who is willing to freely do whatever it takes to support our endeavors is indeed a blessing. But what happens when the requirements of that backing become so burdensome that they compromise our significant other’s own existence, depriving our partner’s ability to pursue his or her own interests – or perhaps to even function on a daily basis? What’s more, why would someone willingly subject one’s partner (or, even more tellingly, himself or herself) to such onerous conditions? Is love really enough to sustain such a potentially unbalanced relationship? Those are some of the questions that Claire and Richard now find themselves up against.
In essence, circumstances come down to what the partners believe about their relationship, their responsibilities to one another and themselves. And those beliefs, in turn, shape what unfolds. That’s very much the case here, and the dynamics involved are indeed significant on multiple levels. Claire, for example, is torn between what she sees as her duties to Richard and the pursuit of her own ventures. In many ways, these endeavors could be viewed as being at odds with one another, a stalemate that’s growing increasingly difficult to resolve and the source of the building stress and frustration in her daily routine. She obviously loves her husband and wants to do right by him, both as a committed spouse and as a supporter of his calling. But, now that Richard has developed Alzheimer’s, the requirements for caring for his well-being alone have expanded significantly, let alone attending to the needs of helping him keep his career on track. And her own pursuits, to say the least, have been relegated to the back burner, despite her mounting urge to revive them.
To reconcile this situation, Claire must ask herself what she wants and determine what she needs to put into place to make that happen. One step that’s especially critical in this is being willing to be honest with herself, to focus on assessing the needs of her authentic self. On the one hand, she believes in being supportive of Richard, but is it too much for her to handle? At the same time, she’s obviously questioning the wisdom of continually putting herself second, subverting her genuine desire to return to her own painting projects. Can she truly feel contented by playing the role of caretaker exclusively? Or does she require more? Is it thus incumbent upon her to give herself permission to move beyond her primary obligations?
This naturally raises the question, how did Claire end up in this scenario in the first place? And what role, if any, did Richard play in it? If he indeed loves his wife, why would he make it so difficult on her, even if unwittingly?
It could be argued that perhaps Richard is unknowingly forcing Claire’s hand. By continually placing more and more demands upon her, he could be pushing her to grow so frustrated with her circumstances that she can’t help but assert herself (probably because her devotion to him would have otherwise prevented her from taking the initiative to do so on her own). That’s a rather difficult way of achieving such a result, but sometimes drastic measures are necessary when simpler means aren’t invoked or even considered. Superficially, such efforts may not be seen as helping, but sometimes intents can be obscured, their masks backhandedly essential to ultimately evoking a desired result.
Of course, given Claire’s temperament, tending to her husband’s needs is only part of what she’s attempting to do. She’s also seeking to build bridges between Richard and Angela, an almost-thankless task in itself. Given everything else on her plate, one might see Claire as a glutton for punishment, noble intents aside. However, considering her nature to be supportive and compassionate, this undertaking is right in line with her true self. What’s important here, though, is that she must recognize the role she should play – that of being a mediator to bring father and daughter together and then letting them do the work of sorting out what kind of relationship they want for the future. Can Claire keep herself in check enough to accomplish this? That, obviously, is up to her.
All of this ultimately could prove challenging in light of Claire’s quest to be her best, truest self for the betterment of herself and those around her. If Claire is to really make the most of this, however, she must remember that this involves more than just being of service to others; it also means being of service to ourselves. No one would argue that she doesn’t have the first part down cold, but, as for that second condition – being of service to herself – she’s got her work cut out for her, and the nagging feelings she has about not living up to that serve as a less-than-subtle reminder that she needs to attend to it. Will she get there? That remains to be seen, but, as an artist at heart, perhaps there is a way for her to bring it about so that it fulfills both prongs of this requirement. The result could be rewarding in ways that satisfy the needs of everyone – including herself (at last).
This moving, if sometimes slightly disjointed, look at the life of a spouse seeking to be loving and supportive while addressing her own needs presents a profile of a character frustrated while attempting to be conciliatory in multiple regards. In doing so, it draws together a variety of narrative threads, recalling a diverse array of pictures. It depicts the tragedy of Alzheimer’s, as seen in films like “Away from Her” (2006) and “Still Alice” (2014). It shows the integral but often-thankless efforts put forth by supportive spouses who operate in the shadows and receive little credit for their work, as seen in “Pollock” (2000) and “The Wife” (2017). And it’s a personally heartfelt project for director Tom Dolby, loosely illustrating the final days of his father, sound engineer Ray Dolby, creator of the Dolby noise reduction system who suffered from Alzheimer’s. The superb lead performances by Olin and Dern, backed by a fine supporting cast, really make this picture work, helping it shine even when its sometimes-meandering narrative lets them down. Still, “The Artist’s Wife” represents a worthwhile candidate for awards season, especially in the acting categories. The film has been playing the festival circuit and is available for streaming online.
Striking a balance between what we feel we need to provide others and what we need to do for ourselves can be like walking a proverbial tightrope. That’s especially true when the situation has been impacted by difficult extenuating circumstances. It may even be enough for many of us to want to give up hope. But remembering that we can be of no service to others if we fail to do the same for ourselves is crucial if any of these needs are to be met.
As Richard observes in a TV interview early on in the film, “I create the art; she creates the rest of our lives.” That’s admirable and quite an accomplishment. It also represents a tremendous responsibility, one that can only be fulfilled with a properly balanced perspective. We can only hope Claire learns how to fulfill this requirement – and that her example can help enlighten the rest of us.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Meet Me in St. Louis
With the 29th annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival now in the books, here’s a look back at the event’s first all-virtual program. Find out more by reading “Wrapping Up the 2020 St. Louis Film Festival,” with brief reviews of 20 movies that I screened during this year’s event. Several films will be featured with full reviews in the near future, so stay tuned!
The Selectivity of Memory
Memory is a funny thing. Some recollections are recalled with the greatest of ease, while others may become fuzzy or even seem to disappear completely. Then there’s the matter of total memory loss (i.e., amnesia), whose effects can be devastating and pervasive. So it is for a growing number of residents of a major city in the quirky new Greek comedy-drama, “Apples” (“Mila”) (web site, trailer).
When a middle-aged Greek man (Aris Servetalis) wakes up on an Athens bus, he has no idea where he is or who he is. When questioned about where he was going, he has no idea. And, when he’s asked about his identity, he has no papers in his wallet. He’s a complete enigma.
This is actually not the first time that viewers see him, though. Before boarding the bus, we see him in what is presumably his apartment, from which he departs, says hello to a neighbor and his dog, and goes to a flower shop to purchase a bouquet of long-stemmed blooms. But that’s as much as the audience knows about him before seeing him waking in his amnesiac state.
The man in question – we’ll call him Aris for the sake of convenience – is not alone, either. A growing wave of amnesiac cases seems to be mysteriously sweeping Athens, with patients all over the city awakening with no knowledge of who they are, how they got to where they were found, or, in some cases, an awareness of even a basic understanding of the world in which they live, as appears to be the case with Aris.
Like the others similarly afflicted, Aris is transported to one of several hospitals designated to treat such patients through their Troubled Memory Departments. Patients like Aris are assigned numbers (in his case No. 14842) to distinguish them until their identities can be determined. Patients whose families realize they have missing relatives generally come to claim them and take them home. But those like Aris, who apparently have no family members searching for them, become semi-permanent residents of these facilities, as their care givers realize it would irresponsible to release them without knowing who they are and lacking in basic survival skills.
Treatment measures generally prove futile, too. Some medications are administered, and memory tests are conducted to try to determine what fundamental knowledge of the world the affected have managed to retain. However, as Aris’s doctor (Anna Kalaitzidou) quickly learns, her patient is largely operating in the dark, unaware of even the most fundamental aspects of life that we all take for granted. She also discovers that his short-term memory retention is seriously lacking, prompting her to wonder how he would cope in an outside world in which he seems to possess not even the slightest sense of connection. In fact, about the only thing he seems to have any recollection of is his love of apples, which he consumes in conspicuous amounts whenever he gets the chance.
Because of his circumstances, Aris is considered to be a candidate for an experimental initiative set up by the hospital, the New Identity Program. Realizing that the candidates for the program are unlikely to recover their past memories or identities, the developers of the NIP (Argiris Bakirtzis, Kostas Laskos) engage them in a structured treatment plan to help give them new personas, something from which it is hoped they can form the basis for a new start in life. Candidates are provided with a place to live, a regular stipend and a program of actions to carry out that they are required to document with photographs. From an outsider’s point of view, the designated actions might seem rather strange – ride the bicycle of a child, intentionally crash a car at slow speed, attend a costume party wearing a distinctive outfit, pick up someone in a night club and have sex in one of its bathroom stalls – but they are all distinctive enough to leave indelible marks on the memories of the patients, providing readily recallable memories to help shape new identities. And, with the photos that document these events, the patients have handy reminders that they occurred and that they can easily look back on for memory reinforcement.
Upon completing one of his assignments – attending a screening of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) – while Aris is taking a photo of himself next to the film’s poster at the theater entrance, he meets Anna (Sofia Georgovassilli), another apparent member of the New Identity Program, though it’s not entirely clear how readily he recognizes that. They strike up a conversation and walk home from the theater together. As they stroll, she tells him the amazing true story about a film she saw in which a large ocean liner hits an iceberg and sinks, a tale that’s unfamiliar to both of them. Nevertheless, their mutual captivation with the story of the Titanic sparks a bond of sorts, and they thus begin spending time together. There’s something strange about the relationship, though, as Aris soon begins to find out.
Meanwhile, Aris grows increasingly comfortable with his new life, enough so that he’s able to maintain his home, attend to his everyday needs and carry out his assignments. He develops quite a flair for cooking, and he enjoys his visits to the neighborhood market, where the grocer (Babis Makridis) regularly makes food recommendations, particularly when it comes to the apples Aris so loves. However, when the grocer realizes that his customer is in the New Identity Program, he recommends that Aris try eating oranges instead of apples, because, he contends, they’re said to be good for the memory. Aris decides to give them a try and soon discovers the merits of that recommendation as snippets of his memory return. But he also quickly learns that those memories may involve recollections he doesn’t want to recall, especially when he finds himself going to a flower shop to purchase a bouquet of long-stemmed blooms. Indeed, perhaps it’s best that some memories are forgotten – and that they should stay that way.
Memory is something whose importance we often tend to undervalue. To be sure, we recognize its significance when it comes to the recollection of milestone events, meaningful relationships and other matters of great relevance. However, it also plays a rudimentary role in more mundane matters, like how to use a can opener, how to brush our teeth or where to buy groceries. If we were unable to recall how to do these things, we would have to struggle our way through everyday existence.
So how exactly does memory figure into these activities? We use the memories associated with these tasks to form beliefs on how they can be accomplished. And, when we draw upon those beliefs, we use them to carry out these activities, bringing them into being. This thus raises the notion, who thought memories were so important?
This is painfully evident in Aris’s case. When he loses his memory, it’s almost as if he can no longer function in some very basic ways. For example, one of the tests his doctor conducts is designed to measure his ability to associate certain types of music with specific activities. When she plays a recording of “Jingle Bells,” he’s given a stack of drawings from which he’s asked to select the one that would most readily go with the song. Needless to say, both he and his physician are disappointed when he picks the illustration of a wedding instead of a family Christmas celebration. That alone shows how pervasive his memory loss has been – and how that deficiency would obviously affect his ability to function on his own without some kind of guidance or assistance.
This is also true when it comes to Aris being able to grasp the nature of his own identity. If he doesn’t have memories of himself, he would also lack beliefs about who he is. In turn, he probably wouldn’t have any clue about what he’s proficient at, what his dreams and aspirations are, or even what he likes (except, of course, his beloved apples). How can one form the basis of a satisfying existence if one can’t even identify the rudiments of one’s own nature?
The implications of this extend beyond just individual amnesiac patients. For instance, if one has no recollections about the way the world works or one’s own personal identity, that leaves said individual open to all manner of potential manipulation. With no memories in place about such matters, one could conceivably be led to believe just about anything. It even raises the specter of being able to convince someone to unwittingly become an aberration of oneself, such as a Manchurian candidate or brainwashed terrorist. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if something nefarious is going on with the heads of the New Identity Program. Are the strange actions they require of program participants aimed at determining how far those subjects would go? It’s certainly food for thought.
Of course, one might legitimately ask, “Why did the amnesia arise in the first place?” And, in the case of this film, that applies both individually and en masse. Could it be that these conditions arose on purpose, even if not recognized as such? Is it possible that those affected by this outbreak of amnesia brought it upon themselves to intentionally forget something, be it of a personal or collective nature (or possibly both)? What’s being forgotten is difficult to determine, given its inherent absence, but one could speculate that it has to do with painful recollections. The loss of a loved one or perhaps a widespread social calamity are among the possibilities. Given that it’s happening on such a broad scale, though, suggests that there are many individuals looking to tune out, the exact cause of which notwithstanding.
In that sense, one could argue that the scenario presented here mirrors the ennui many of us in society are feeling these days. In a world plagued by myriad social, political and economic issues, not to mention the personal tragedies of everyday life, it’s no wonder that some of us would willingly like to forget what happened and slip into an amnesiac state. However, the danger in that is that, in our hopes of being relieved of such anguish, we might carry things too far, reaching a state where our memories are wiped so clean that we lose the ability to carry out everyday activities. Do we really want circumstances to go that far?
And what’s with the apples – where do they come into play here? It’s common knowledge that apples are a widely recognized symbol in Greek mythology and Biblical scripture, most notably as the so-called “forbidden fruit” that got Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden. According to the Bible, they lost paradise when they ate the one fruit – apples – that God forbade them to consume. This legendary story has since symbolically come to associate this fruit with great loss, a notion that has taken up residence in the consciousness of many of us. If that’s the case, then, why would someone like Aris become so preoccupied with their voluntary consumption? Does this notion apply to him? And, if so, why would he willingly go along with it? Is there something he’s purposely trying to lose – or forget?
Director Christos Nikou is off to a fine start with this impressive debut feature. This suspenseful, nuanced and engaging meditation on the nature of memory and the selectivity of its retention will keep viewers guessing from start to finish, all the while serving up heaping helpings of wry humor and cleverly dangling clues before our eyes that may or may not prove integral to solving the mystery of this intriguing conundrum. The film mirrors the eccentricity of directors like Yorgos Lanthimos and Charlie Kaufman, presents a puzzle not unlike that found in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000) and Claire Carré’s “Embers” (2015), and successfully incorporates the kind of deadpan laughs characteristic of Hal Ashby’s “Being There” (1979). The film’s inventive, tautly composed script, written by Nikou and Stavros Raptis, deservedly captured the Chicago Film Festival’s Silver Hugo Award for best screenplay. Indeed, if this is what Nikou has to offer in his first major outing, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
“Apples” has primarily been playing the film festival circuit thus far, so finding it may be a little difficult. However, given the strength of this offering, it would be a boon to movie buffs everywhere if it were to obtain a wider release. Keep an eye out for it – it’s definitely worth it.
Memory performs a function more vital than most of us realize or give it credit for. Without it, we could be irretrievably lost, not only in terms of knowing ourselves, but also in knowing our reality. As “Apples” so effectively illustrates, memory is indeed crucial to the core of our being, helping us form the beliefs that makes living our lives possible. And don’t you forget it.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.