“It’s not a painting unless you leave a piece of yourself on the canvas.”

Not a lot of noise has been made about the release of The Artist’s Wife; and that’s a shame. It’s understandable though. The film isn’t big and loud, it doesn’t court controversy and it wasn’t helmed by some cutting edge auteur on a hot streak. Maybe if The Artist’s Wife had starred Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, it would be on the lips of more awards season critics and audiences. Yet as it stands, co-writer/director Tom Dolby’s tale about what happens when a decade’s long marriage reaches its own precipice may not become an awards darling, but it nonetheless remains one of the strongest films to delve into the heart of two people with a love stronger than either illness or time.

In The Artist’s Wife, celebrated painter/professor Richard (Bruce Dern) has enjoyed a long career and marriage to the lovely Claire (Lena Olin); a former student who gave up her own ambitions as a painter when she decided to get married. However the discovery of her husband’s lapses in memory and bouts of unpredictable behavior have caused Claire to re-evaluate their life together along with many of the choices she’s made.

The elegiac genre of film is one which has been around for ages and is almost always being revisited. I’m in no way not complaining about this. Titles such as On Golden Pond and the aptly titled Elegy all managed the kind of poignancy that’s as enriching as it is cinematic, ensuring that the genre remains a mainstay. The Artist’s Wife adds to the collection with a story which doesn’t add much in the way of narrative surprise, but manages to feel fresh all the same. It does this by shifting focus away from a main character undergoing one of the most profound changes of their life and instead moving it over to their loved one. Claire is the central figure of this film and it’s her journey which makes it a worthwhile experience. As she grapples with losing her partner of many, many years, she finds herself sliding into the past and encountering the person she ceased to be when she met Richard. The Artist’s Wife is essentially about a woman discovering she can no longer be (due to what’s happening to her husband), who she was before and who she must become now.

The ongoing side theme of The Artist’s Wife is of course the world of art. This element is kept in the background, save for a handful of scenes in which Richard’s paintings come up, as does the work Claire produces as a way of finding herself again. For the most part however, The Artist’s Wife is more concerned about the human emotions rather than the visual ones. When the presence of art is unmistakably the center of any one scene, it only makes for richer storytelling experience, elevating the already-beautiful film even more. A scene in which the artistic nature is interwoven with Richard’s condition is striking in its effect, while also heartbreaking as it shows where the character lives, mentally. In a sense, the film itself is like a painting with it’s Rembrandt-like cinematography by Ryan Earl Parker and Jami Viller’s costumes with a palate that likewise echoes a masterful work of art. The final time actual art is used, it’s done so with such simplicity and signifies a gesture of undying love and incredible devotion.

The two leads are just too outstanding for words. There’s such a serenity in Olin’s performance that shows how much she’s opened herself up to Claire and how much she feels for her. The level of earnestness in the actress’s work enables her to give the character dignity and strength in what becomes her finest performance in years. Dern indulges in a few scenes which call for the kind of loud theatrics that represent his character’s affliction, but still manages a groundedness and a sort of poetry in his best turn since Nebraska. Finally Juliette Rylance as Angela, Richard’s estranged daughter, manages to breathe genuine life and soul into what would otherwise be a stock character.

Oh, how I wish that The Artist’s Wife would get the kind of acclaim and attention it deserves as it makes its case among the early crop of awards hopefuls. But I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter. Dolby’s film has said everything it set out to say and has done so exquisitely and thoughtfully. The Artist’s Wife comments on a number of subjects including dementia, legacy, family, romance and how to reconcile each one with the people we become. But what the film illustrates best of all is the notion that life itself is a work of art. Each person is their own artist and creator, painting a portrait of themselves with each choice they make in their life representing an important brushstroke. In the end, we are the masterpieces we create.

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