The Artist’s Wife – Film Review
Behind every great man, is a great woman according to an oft quoted idiom and The Artist’s Wife is dedicated to this premise. Lena Olin plays the dutiful, elegant wife as Claire to Bruce Dern’s role as Richard who is the tempestuous, spoiled artist. Claire’s needs are secondary to Richard’s as her career was postponed to enable his to flourish. This concept has previously been explored within films such as The Wife starring Glenn Close however The Artist’s Wife acts as a homage to such women recognising their thankless tasks. The Artist’s Wife is a slow burning, poignant examination of the disintegration of a relationship, within artistic confines, when external factors have an impact and the artistic brilliance begins to ebb away, but the film lacks the requisite levels of enthusiasm.
The art world has historically romanticised this notion of The Artist’s Wife and muse, immortalised within several paintings of the same title including those by Henry Lamb, Amedeo Modigliani and Carl Villhelm Holsøe. Quite often these women are described as the lady of the house with the household considered to be their domain. However, the dynamics typically are uneven with a younger woman as the companion of the older, worldly man which, on the face of it, is reflected in Claire and Richard’s relationship.
Within The Artist’s Wife, Claire, whilst mainly concerned with maintaining that household, is effectively imprisoned emotionally. Olin conveys this angst convincingly with the pain etched on her face despite being well heeled and immersed within affluent surroundings. Her house is a spacious, isolated one within the luxurious Hamptons neighbourhood and her well-composed demeanour does not indicate the type of long suffering associated with similar artist-muse relationships. Olin’s performance is commendable during such moments with the subtle indication of upset and regret within her eyes whilst maintaining her dignity in the face of emotional abuse and neglect from an insufferable, arrogant husband.
Director Tom Dolby’s decision to approach such a storyline from the perspective of the wife is refreshing. Here is a portrait, within The Artist’s Wife, of a woman whose own talent was relegated to the background within a relationship to ensure that the relationship survived. It is fascinating to watch Claire’s personality re-emerge from a carefully constructed shell, when the opportunity arises to re-enter the art world following her husband’s ailment. Dolby has crafted an empathetic tale, based on his personal experience, with an impressive montage when Claire visits New York City and Olin’s expressive face depicts the wide-eyed wonder and joy for Claire. It is during these brief moments where The Artist’s Wife is transformed beyond its parameters of a sentimental, clichéd tale.
The cast perform well within the limitations of the storyline with Dern relishing the role of the acerbic, cantankerous Richard and Stefanie Powers is in a cameo role with some superb one-liners. Powers’ Aida remarks to Claire that she was ‘smart to marry a man whose sexiness came from his talent’ and that Claire had effectively made the right move in stepping back from painting as ‘being a woman in the arts was like being a Christian in the Roman Empire.’ It is these witty, insightful comments that underline this outmoded concept, at the heart of The Artist’s Wife, of a wife sacrificing her entire identity and career for the sake of a marriage; although, this still remains relevant today in the struggle for the appreciation of women’s voices and contributions.
The Artist’s Wife skims over delving into these gendered concepts further which would have created that emotional resonance for audiences to identify with Claire’s plight. Her character generally seems unsympathetic given her comfortable surroundings and inscrutable outlook. The Artist’s Wife is steady in tone exploring middle age within the upper echelons of society and presents a veneer that is too glossy to be memorable. As such, it is the film’s messier, emotional scenes that are the most engaging and stretch Olin and Dern despite the elegant, stylistic cinematography overall.
The Artist’s Wife is well-made but delivers more style than substance. Unfortunately, without the passion to rescue it from its over-reliance on well-established tropes, the film will fail to leave a lasting impression on most audiences.