‘The Artist’s Wife’ Blooms in the Bleak Midwinter

Lena Olin tends to her husband, his art and her own creative soul.

The Artist’s Wife is a wintry film, as the director Tom Dolby describes it. “Everything is just blanketed with snow and you have this blankness and whiteness, which is similar to the whiteness of Richard’s (Bruce Dern) canvases and, really, the fading away of what’s going on in his mind.” The Hamptons and the house the share in also contribute to the mood of the film. “There’s an incredible tradition of artists out there, Pollock and de Kooning, and then many contemporary artists today are still working there,” Dolby says.     

After making his first film, Last Weekend (2014), which was shot in its entirety at Lake Tahoe, Dolby wanted his second film to have a bigger sense of scope. “With The Artist’s Wife, we were going all over the Hamptons and moving locations constantly and then going into New York City,” he says. Dolby also wanted to make a serious drama. 

Claire (Lena Olin) — like his own mother — has to contend with her partner’s mortality. “Last Weekend has its dramatic elements whereas with The Artist’s Wife, it really does come down to life-and-death issues,” Dolby says.  

Towards the end of the film, there are shots of snow swirling around the enormous windows of the house. “One person described Richard and Claire’s home as a beautiful snow globe and I loved that description,” he says. The problem that Claire faces is that she’s trapped inside of it.

The myth of the female muse inspiring the male artist is put to rest in both The Wife (2017) and The Artist’s Wife. In The Wife, directed by Björn Runge, Glenn Close’s character has supported her husband’s writing career by actually writing “his” novels herself. In The Artist’s Wife, Richard was already a celebrated painter years before he married Claire, his second wife. Although Claire’s also a painter, she shelved her own ambitions in order to take care of her husband and his artistic career.

Dolby, who spoke with SF Weekly from his home in Los Angeles, points out other dissimilarities between the two stories. For instance, “They have been maintaining this fraudulent existence their entire marriage in The Wife, whereas that’s not what was going on in our film.” The director, who shares a screenwriting credit with Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian, says that there were many drafts of the screenplay by the time he read Meg Wollitzer’s novel The Wife (from which that film is adapted). 

“I remember reading it and loving it, and I really enjoyed the movie, but I felt that there were some real differences,” he says. The acclaim the 2017 movie received didn’t deter him from finishing his film. He felt that its success proved that audiences were hungry for these kinds of stories. 

Dolby’s film sprang from his own experience. He first started sketching it out about 12 years ago. “I was very interested in the idea of doing something about the woman behind the man,” he says. Or, he continues, “the woman next to the man in terms of a creative relationship.”

Another crucial element unique to The Artist’s Wife is the dementia that Bruce Dern’s character is suffering from. Dolby’s late father also had dementia. And, at the time he started writing the film, he had been living in the Hamptons. “I spent one very, very cold and dark winter there and that also inspired the setting,” he says. These plot points came together as Brending and then Nazemian collaborated on the screenplay.   

The Artist’s Wife though is really Claire’s story. Dolby says that he was particularly fascinated by his mother’s experience and what she went through to come to terms with his father’s illness. “There’ve been many wonderful films that have focused on the person who has dementia. I didn’t feel like that was something that we needed to explore as much,” he says. Dolby also felt it was important to tell a story that featured a woman over the age of sixty in the lead role.  

He chose Lena Olin to play the part because he was intrigued by her previous roles. “I think she has a fearlessness in terms of the material [she’s chosen],” Dolby explains. In casting the film, the producers approached a handful of American actresses who said they were afraid of the subject matter. At least one actress confided in the director later that, “When you do a film where there’s a dementia theme, you’ve reached that level of being considered officially old.”

Dolby thought that was a sad reaction for someone to have. He considers Olin and Dern courageous actors for responding to and taking on the roles. At the start of her acting career, Olin worked with the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. That professional experience prepared her to be unafraid of exploring dark places, the director says.

“As for Bruce,” Dolby adds, “he’s at an age where he doesn’t have to worry about people thinking he’s old.”   

The Artist’s Wife is in select theaters and VOD/Digital Platforms September 25, 2020.
The Roxie Theater, San Francisco
Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael 
Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Berkeley
Rialto Cinemas Cerrito, El Cerrito
Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol, Sebastopol


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