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The Agony of Sophia Tolstoy

Jennifer Wilson
Frederick Wiseman resurrects the wife of the famed Russian writer only to reduce her to the sum of her grievances.

Film Forum

Nathalie Boutefeu as Sophia Tolstoy in Frederick Wiseman's A Couple, 2022

In July 1897 Mikhail Tolstoy, the tenth child of Lev Tolstoy, wanted to have a little chat with his mother. The subject: his “sexual urges,” which had grown increasingly “painful.” Her teenaged son feared, she recounted in her diary, that he might succumb to them. In a relatable pivot, Sophia decided this was all her husband’s fault. He should be there, she wrote, to counsel her “poor boys!”—not off in Tula attending a meeting for bicycling enthusiasts. “Yet another interest of his!” she noted, with an exasperated exclamation point.

There is scarcely an entry in the diary of Sophia Tolstoy that does not make mention of her husband, from his pursuits (beekeeping, famine relief, sins of the flesh) to his anxieties (slow-moving bowels, deadlines, sins of the flesh again). When she describes him overcoming a bout of constipation, she sounds like Teresa de Ávila: “My soul has been relieved of a terrible ache.” This overinvolvement could be read symptomatically, as the product of a patriarchal culture in which women’s lives revolved around their husbands. It did not help that this specific husband was considered both the greatest novelist who ever lived and a religious prophet by his contemporaries.

Yet a broad social reading can obscure more particular, less instructive truths—namely, that this couple was obsessed with each other. When Sophia went away to St. Petersburg for a short trip, her husband wrote this in a letter: “I try not to think about you. Yesterday, I approached your desk, but jumped back as if I had burnt myself, so as not to imagine you there.” His attentions could be oppressive and unmanageable, but not always. The frequency and voraciousness of their sexual appetites embarrassed them both. “It’s the most inexcusable debauchery, and at my age!” she writes. “I am so sad and ashamed. I feel I am a sinful person and can do nothing for it, though I do try.”

Without this background, A Couple, a rare fictional project from the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman, might feel like a bit much. The film is a sixty-three-minute monologue by the French actress Nathalie Boutefeu, playing the role of a beleaguered Countess Tolstoy. Her desperate pleas in the middle of the forest—“Your power crushed my life and personality”—might sound melodramatic, but they match the intimate intensity of their source material: Sophia’s diaries and letters, translated into French by Daria Olivier and Frédérique Longueville. A Couple has an almost claustrophobic quality. Despite being shot outdoors in picturesque Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, it takes place within the overwhelmed mind of a woman driven to near madness by a totalizing marriage, the exhaustions of wifedom and motherhood exacerbated by romantic addiction. Only she appears onscreen, pondering her forty-eight-year marriage through fields of trembling daisies and alongside quiet ponds disturbed by passing breezes, but you can feel her famous husband’s presence with every strong wind and knotted branch, threatening to a knock the helpless-seeming Boutefeu to the ground. A Couple looks like a nature documentary, the Tolstoy marriage distilled to visual metaphor: crashing waves meeting rocky shores.

Wiseman is best known for capturing American institutions with warmth and political precision, in films like High School (1968), Welfare (1975), and Public Housing (1997). He achieves this by letting his subjects, ordinary people who get through life by squeezing out beauty and humor wherever they can find it, speak freely. A Couple would seem a world apart, with its focus on the private travails of two members of the landed gentry. Yet marriage is also an institution, and conveniently for a film shot in 2020, it legally cannot involve a large crowd. In interviews Wiseman has spoken about the impact of the pandemic on his choice of subject. He traded packed meeting rooms for a single actor in the outdoors. The only surface that needed sanitizing was the tiny desk Boutefeu sits at, writing letters by candlelight.

The first seasons of the pandemic were also a time when uncompensated domestic labor, a permanent problem, was getting some temporary media attention. Though other issues within the Tolstoy marriage are alluded to (jealousy, emotional infidelity, Tolstoy’s morbid fear of death), the parts from the diary about childrearing and meal prep get extra screentime. In an interview with Indiewire, Wiseman said of the Tolstoy marriage, “The issues between them seem very contemporary now.…Who was going to take care of the kids? What was their education going to be? How much time did each parent spend with them?” It is a little funny, then, to open up Sophia’s diaries and see what their real fights were about: Why had he taken on the stressful cause of repatriating a group of Russian pacifists to Canada?

But it would have made no sense for them to fight about who would look after the children. Wiseman, through selective curation and poetic license, implies that Sophia lives in a world with options, wherein her job as mother needs defending. In the film, as Boutefeu recounts the meals cooked and the sick children nursed back to health, she pleads with her husband to recognize that “this is the prose of life.” The problem is that Tolstoy absolutely considered childrearing to be the prose of life (he regarded breastfeeding as practically a sacrament). Far from looking down upon domestic labor, he idealized it in the context of a woman’s life, to the exclusion of all else. Conversely, he never bothered to read his wife’s actual prose, and what ignited Sophia’s sense of injustice in her literary pursuits (she wrote four novellas) was the sidelining of women’s creative prowess in the arts.

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A Couple is not a realist biopic. It has taken no vow of fidelity. Yet there is something awkward about how the film obscures the particulars of sexism as Sophia experienced them to make her life more legible within a contemporary feminist discourse. In the end, Wiseman, like Tolstoy, renders Sophia yet again the wife as device.

*

Who was she really? Sophia Tolstoy was born Sophia Behrs in 1844, the second of thirteen children (only eight survived infancy). It would be nearly impossible to overstate how idyllic her childhood was. The family was tight-knit, creative, and active. The children studied art and took gymnastics lessons at the Kremlin. Guests flocked to their home on Easter for the Behrs housekeeper’s famous cakes. The children rushed to the window to wave to the tsar as his carriage went by their home (and he waved back). Picture a frosty snow globe of bohemian privilege. Tolstoy knew the family well. As a child he had actually been sweet on Sophia’s mother, Lyubov, two years his elder; in fact, he nearly killed her after pushing her from a balcony when he saw her talking to another boy at a dance. This jealous streak would not be diluted by the passage of time.*

As an adult, Tolstoy worshipped the happy Behrs home from afar, all the more because his own family was in terrible disarray. By the time he decided to marry, at thirty-four, his parents and two brothers had died, and a sister had left her husband to live with a Swedish count abroad. He fantasized that one of the joyful Behrs girls, like the middle sister Sophia (just eighteen when they married), could be the antidote to his unhappiness. “How simple and pure you are,” he told her in the final days before their wedding.

Tolstoy was a demanding husband, who treated his wife like an inexhaustible machine (specifically, a photocopier). She copied and revised War and Peace so many times that at Tolstoy’s first public reading she fell asleep from boredom. To the peasants who lived on their estate at Yasnaya Polana she was not only mistress but midwife, delivering their children (her father had been a doctor) when she was not in labor herself—a frequent occurrence. She gave birth thirteen times, and when she developed mastitis and struggled to breastfeed, Tolstoy became so furious at her for failing to live up to his feminine ideal that he wrote a play in which the hiring of a wet nurse is an evil portent. He titled it “The Infected Family.” In A Couple, Boutefeu details the difficulties of raising so many children, the physical toll that consecutive pregnancies took on her physically and mentally. She looks straight into the camera and asks, “Do you see me as a person?”

Film Forum

Nathalie Boutefeu as Sophia Tolstoy in Frederick Wiseman’s A Couple, 2022

He certainly saw her as material. Tolstoy based the character of Kitty Shcherbatskaya on her, a faithful wife and devoted mother spared the torments of the lustful Anna Karenina. Likewise, he drew from her to sketch Natasha Rostova, or rather, the version of her that appears in the epilogue to War and Peace: married and permanently pregnant. The real Sophia could delight in Tolstoy’s idealization of her. Full of desire, she was desperate to please him. Reflecting on six years of marriage, she wrote, “I am restless with love for him, full of the same jealous and poetic passion as always. His composure infuriates me.” She would play the part he wanted her to, even as it enervated her.

Wiseman’s Sophia is anxious that her husband only sees her as mother, yet there was another role that the real Sophia had in mind for herself, one that Tolstoy gave little hearing to. There is hardly any mention in A Couple of Sophia’s literary output and boundless creativity. In addition to the four novellas, she wrote and illustrated textbooks with which to homeschool her children. She also drew picture books for them to take on long trips. Sadly they do not survive, but her daughter described them vividly later on: “The things she managed to cram into those pictures! There were terrifying wolves carrying off little children into dark woods” and “hares stealing cabbages and carrots.” Sophia was also famously, perhaps even notoriously, a music lover. Tolstoy was ferociously jealous of the composer Sergei Taneev, with whom she formed a close friendship. Her fondness for Taneev became the inspiration for “The Kreutzer Sonata” (1889), in which a husband kills his wife in a jealous rage over a violinist. Sophia wrote a story in response, titled “Who’s to Blame?”

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Yet was it only the musician that Tolstoy envied, or was it perhaps music itself? In Sophia’s diaries the only subject she speaks about as amorously as her husband are the melodies of Schubert. In a letter from 1864, just two years into their marriage, she tells him she is in tears at the sound of her sister playing them. The music, she writes, “has pulled me away from my sphere: nursery, diapers and children.” She feels guilty, explaining to him that “for you, as a poet and writer, such emotions are needed, but to me, as a mother and wife, they only bring pain, as I cannot and must not give myself over to them.”

There is nothing of this deep longing in A Couple. We are given a Sophia without desires or surprising fantasies, without music. We are meant to see a woman crushed under the weight of inequality, but must she—who was so vivacious and funny—be depleted and made dull to drive that point home? We have to see an appetite to know it needs feeding.

What do we want from books and films about the wives of male writers? Is it a game of “gotcha”—ah, yes, you wrote brilliantly about the human condition on the page, but in real life you were an ass? Surely we are not still doing this: feigning shock at hypocrisy, the most human of all conditions. I often hear people say that such projects offer invaluable insights into the writers’ female characters. This approach to reading women’s lives as maps to the hearts of their husbands has always left a sour taste in my mouth, as if we were digging up women’s graves just to tell them, one more time: you are only as important as the man you married. I sense that Wiseman thinks he has avoided this trap by keeping Tolstoy offscreen. Yet in reducing Sophia Tolstoy’s life to a familiar script—the underappreciated wife of the male genius—he has instrumentalized her just the same, robbing her of all that made her unique, including her own genius. Every unhappy woman is unhappy in her own way.


A Couple is playing at Film Forum.

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