Cannes 2021: ‘The Story of My Wife’ is a Dull & Dour Waste of Time
by Alex Billington
July 17, 2021
This is one story that isn’t worth telling. The Story of My Wife (also known as A Feleségem Története in Hungarian) is the first English language film made by the acclaimed, award-winning Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi. She’s a wonderfully talented filmmaker and usually knows how to craft nuanced, powerfully moving stories about love and life, but not this time. I really wish this was better… I had high hopes for it. But it’s such a let down. The Story of My Wife is a gorgeous-looking epic three hour romance about a sea captain and his French wife. Alas, the slow-burn rage of jealousy is drawn out over two hours and it drags on and on. And with a runtime just 10 minutes shy of three hours, it’s a powerfully tedious affair, a story that goes on and on without ever becoming interesting or worthwhile. Right from the start I could tell these two lovers didn’t have any chemistry, and it’s almost painful to watch their romance flounder over 169 minutes.
The film is based on an iconic 1942 novel of the same name written by Milán Füst. The premise is simple at first: a sea captain makes a bet in a cafe with a friend that he will marry the first woman who walks in. And in walks in Lizzy, a French woman played by Léa Seydoux. He woos her and they marry and he goes back to his ship, but that’s just the start of their story. Throughout the rest of the film he struggles to adapt to married life, dealing with the realities of having a social life on land. But most importantly he doesn’t know how to deal with jealousy. At first he just shrugs it off, as he is a sea captain and has more important things to worry about. Eventually this little spark of jealousy begins to turn into a roaring fire inside of him, and he becomes more and more paranoid that she is spending time with someone else and ruining his life in the meantime. There’s never any real chemistry probably because they didn’t fall in love naturally to begin with.
One of the most excruciating aspects of this is the lead performance from Dutch actor Gijs Naber starring as sea captain Jakob Störr. I do believe that he is a competent actor, but in this film, everything about him feels off right from the start. Perhaps it’s the English language performance, perhaps it’s the way he tried to portray a blundering, buffoon seaman. He’s not that bright, and that’s obvious, that’s part of the story, but he’s such a bumbling, uninteresting character and it’s hard to spend this much time for him and sympathize with him. He knows what he’s doing on a ship, but he doesn’t know much about marriage or anything else, and that often gets in the way of the story in addition to his romance. Throughout the film I kept thinking I would much rather watch a version of this with each actor performing in their own original language – Jakob in Dutch and Lizzy in French, with “broken English” as their middle-ground when/if necessary. Maybe this would have made it more authentic, but maybe it would’ve also allowed them to build up genuine chemistry.
The most impressive part of the film is the cinematography, shot by Hungarian DP Marcell Rév. He lights each scene perfectly, captures the atmosphere of life at sea and life on land exquisitely. There are numerous shots of the ship sailing that are so stunning they could be framed individually and hung up in galleries. But unfortunately, as good as it looks, there’s not much more below the surface of Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife. The slow-burn growl of jealousy is so overwhelming it drowns the rest of the story. We get it; it’s not easy to be husband and wife when you choose your wife at random. The English dialogue is so stilted and the main lovers so dull, it doesn’t hold up. They’re both such dour and uninteresting characters in such an uninteresting story that doesn’t need to be dragged out and overplayed this much. It’s not a total shipwreck, thankfully, but also not worth your time to dive into this story. Just tell your own story of your wife instead.