The cultural duality of The Wife

Family ties: The film frames her as a recklessly selfless wife who dedicates her talent to boosting his self-worth.

Family ties: The film frames her as a recklessly selfless wife who dedicates her talent to boosting his self-worth.   | Photo Credit: Graeme Hunter

In an age that thrives on recycled art, I often fantasise about the tormented conceivers of original art. We know about “method actors” — strivers who lose themselves in the vacuum that distinguishes cinema from life. I wonder about the writer-equivalent. I don’t mean the writer who sets out to murder people as research for a new serial-killer novel. I mean the masters of ordinary, everyday things. Writers who write about love, time, seasons, itself.

The best of them delicately mine their own reality to design fiction. But what about those who aren’t gifted enough experience? Do some, maybe subconsciously, inflict upon themselves the emotions and crises they hope to write about? Do they become their own guinea pig to make the art more personal? The Wife, directed by Bjorn Runge, doesn’t directly address these questions. But there are answers hidden within its form.

Consumed by suppression

The Wife opens with Joseph Castleman, an accomplished American author, receiving a phone call that declares him the 1992 Nobel Laureate for Literature. His wife, Joan, is visibly moved. “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!” he sings, in the six-note musical tone (Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah) that evokes a child taunting the world. As the film moves to Sweden, the setting of the ceremony, it appears that Joseph’s juvenile little jig might have been an instinctive taunt to Joan instead. Because the narrative soon reveals that Joan is the real author in the family; she has been ghostwriting Joseph’s best-selling books for decades. He gets the credit, she gets his love. Tensions oscillate when a nosy journalist threatens to uncover their secret.

At first glance, The Wife comes across as a story that uses writing as an allegory for (an abusive) marriage. She literally wears his identity. It depicts the ugly psychology of companionship — an embodiment of the “Behind every successful man is a woman” proverb. Joan is willingly responsible for his stature. For the father, a son blindly idolises. For the philandering husband, young women indulge. For the wordsmith, readers worship. She edits out his bad parts, and rewrites him as a man the world would rather see. Glenn Close plays Joan as a lady consumed by the complex language of suppression. At some level, she embraces his toxic masculinity. Even its littler pretensions, like his Brooklyn drawl morphing into a quasi-aristocratic accent in public. That Joan’s tolerance wavers in Stockholm is possibly an allusion to her own lifelong Stockholm Syndrome.

Other movies might have eschewed the personality of this marriage to service the feminist need of the hour – for instance, a rousing conclusion where Joan ousts her husband to the media. But The Wife remains honest to the sociocultural limitations of its universe. It respects that, however problematic, crippling co-dependence is merely an old cousin of love. Joan’s breaking-free scene is not steeped in bravado. She decides to reveal ‘the truth’ to her children rather than ‘expose’ Joseph to everyone: a private choice of phrase that signifies her trust in the co-conspirator narrative.

Quiet subservience

But dig deeper, and you’ll find that Joan’s pattern hints at a duality in the film’s sense of feminism. There is a quiet subservience to Close’s performance that explores gender as a ruse to position the mad-artist stereotype. The film frames her as a recklessly selfless wife who dedicates her talent to boosting his self-worth. But Joan is a ruthless artist who has gone so far as to create a life – narcissistic spouse, semi-functional marriage — to boost her own talent. This is her story; he is her story. The signs are everywhere. As a pretty literary student seduced by then-married professor Joseph, Joan’s breakout manuscript was based on his first wife. Her debut novel, in his name, examines his Jewish roots. Her subsequent stories borrow from their 30-year-old union. The arrangement is twofold: He has the life, she has the words. He becomes her muse. She even forgives his cheating, essentially turning him into a character to exploit – through showdowns and spectatorship — for authentic material.

The clincher: Joseph knows. He knows he’d be a nobody without her, but also that she would be a lesser somebody without him. During heated arguments, he implies that she is lucky for his love. When she assures him that she loves him, his last words: “You’re such a good liar”. The final shot shows Joan opening her journal to reveal a blank page. Some might read this as her freedom. But what it really means is that without Joseph, Joan’s pages are empty. And that perhaps Joseph’s last book, a posthumous release, might be a modern-day tragedy about a wife who loses her voice once her husband dies.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 4:23:56 PM |

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