Review: ‘The Artist’s Wife,’ starring Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia and Stefanie Powers

September 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bruce Dern and Lena Olin in “The Artist’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing)

“The Artist’s Wife”

Directed by Tom Dolby

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state in the cities of East Hampton and New York, the dramatic film “The Artist’s Wife” has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans and one Indian American) representing the middle-class and upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: A woman who is married to a famous artist has problems dealing with his dementia, and she regrets abandoning her own artistic career to cater to her husband.

Culture Audience: “The Artist’s Wife” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramas about privileged people who find out that money and fame can’t make them immune from certain problems.

Lena Olin in “The Artist’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing)

The dramatic film “The Artist’s Wife” takes an often frustratingly uneven look at a mid-life crisis of a woman coming to terms with some of the decisions that she’s made in her life. On the one hand, the movie is mostly well-acted and has some scenes that are heartfelt and genuine. On the other hand, “The Artist’s Wife” writer/director Tom Dolby makes some inconsistent choices in tone and editing that lower the quality of the movie. Ultimately, the movie’s occasional lack of cohesion is superseded by the good (but not great) performances by lead actors Lena Olin and Bruce Dern.

“The Artist’s Wife” will no doubt annoy people with feminist sensibilities because it’s about a submissive woman who spends most of the story coddling, enabling and making excuses for her awful husband. However, as uncomfortable as this movie might make some people feel about this very unequal partnership, the reality is that a lot of people have a relationship that’s just like the dysfunctional marriage of Richard and Claire Smythson, the fictional couple at the center of the movie. People’s lives can be messy and complicated, and they don’t always make the right decisions.

In the beginning of the film, Richard (played by Dern) and Claire (played by Olin) are being interviewed on TV while they sit on a couch together. Richard is a very famous artist who hasn’t shown a completed new painting in years, so he’s been coasting on his legacy. During the interview, Richard says as Claire looks lovingly at him: “I create the art. She creates the rest of our life. Everything we do is up to Claire.”

This interview might paint a rosy picture of Claire being a strong leader, but the reality is that Claire is not the one in charge in this marriage. She spends most of the movie doing whatever it takes to please Richard, who is demanding, stubborn, self-centered and extremely rude to everyone around him. Claire abandoned her own promising career as an artist to become a full-time homemaker.

It’s a decision that both Claire and Richard seemed to happy with, as they’ve led a charmed and privileged life in East Hampton, New York. But then, Claire gets some bad news that turns her comfortable life upside down: Richard has been diagnosed with dementia. Claire knew that Richard was being more forgetful lately, but she assumed it was because of the natural aging process and because he’s been drinking more alcohol. However, it’s clear as the movie goes on that Richard’s terrible personality was a problem, even before he got dementia.

After Claire gets over the shock and denial about Richard’s dementia, she goes into “I’m going to fix this” mode, even though she’s been told by medical professionals that there’s no cure for dementia. One of the first things that Claire does is call Richard’s estranged daughter Angela (Richard’s only child) to tell her the news. Angela’s reaction is emotionally distant, as she tells Claire: “I didn’t want your money five years ago, and I don’t want it now.” Angela says, almost as an afterthought, “I’m sorry about Richard.”

It’s during this phone call that Claire finds out that Angela has a son whom Claire and Richard have never met. The son, who is 6 years old, can be heard in the background during the phone call. It’s clear that Angela doesn’t really want to talk to Claire for long, because Angela is abrupt and dismissive during their brief phone conversation.

The movie doesn’t go into details over what happened to Angela’s mother (who is not seen or mentioned in the film), but it’s implied that Angela’s parents probably got divorced when Angela was very young. It’s unclear whether or not Claire was the reason for the divorce, but Claire and Richard weren’t the ones who primarily raised Angela.

Richard has not had a good relationship with Angela for years. Angela comments to Claire about Richard: “He’s never really known me.” Later in the movie, Angela makes a snide offhand remark to Claire about Richard being good at disappointing people.

One day, Claire takes it upon herself to go unannounced to Angela’s apartment in New York City, to see if Angela wants to discuss reconciling with Richard. Claire also wants Richard to get to know his grandson before Richard dies. Claire’s unannounced visit goes as badly as you might expect it would.

Claire’s closest confidant is Richard’s art agent Liza Caldwell (played by Tonya Pinkins), who has resigned herself to thinking that Richard isn’t going to show any of his new paintings anytime soon. During a dinner videoconference call that Richard and Claire have with Liza, he refuses to show Liza a new painting he says he’s working on because his policy is that he and Claire are the only two people who get to see any of his unfinished paintings.

Even though Richard is not making any money from his unfinished paintings, apparently he has enough money to afford a $94,000 clock that’s the size of a cuckoo clock. Claire finds out that Richard made this purchase when the clock arrives in the mail and she opens the package and sees the total cost. She mildly scolds Richard, who angrily responds that he did nothing wrong because he wanted that clock. Claire then mutters to herself that she’s going to return the clock and get a refund.

To take her mind off of Richard’s grim medical diagnosis, Claire spends a night out in New York City with Liza at a gallery opening. Claire ends up getting drunk and misses the bus that would take her back to East Hampton. And so, Claire decides to make another unannounced visit to Angela’s apartment.

Claire asks Angela if she could stay over at Angela’s place. Claire says that she doesn’t want to take a taxi or rideshare drive back to East Hampton because she doesn’t want to be stuck in a long car ride with a stranger. Angela immediately says no, but then she reluctantly agrees to let Claire spend the night at her apartment. Angela also astutely tells Claire that Claire probably subconsciously wanted to get drunk and miss the last bus to East Hampton so Claire could use it as an excuse to come over to Angela’s place.

The next morning, Angela is introduced to Claire’s bright and adorable son Diego, nicknamed Gogo (played by Ravi Cabot-Conyers), and his caregiver Danny (played by Avan Jogia), who is an aspiring musician in his 20s. Angela is a lesbian who is going through a difficult divorce from her estranged wife (who is not seen in the movie), who is Gogo’s other parent.

Angela tells a sympathetic Claire that her estranged wife ended the relationship and moved in with a female fitness instructor eight days after leaving Angela. In other words, Angela is not in an emotionally good place in her life right now. But is Angela willing to mend her relationship with her father Richard and for Richard to get to know his grandson? That question is answered in the movie.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to see why Angela is reluctant to be in Richard’s life: He’s an emotionally abusive bully. Richard teaches an art class at a university, where he berates his young students about what he thinks it means to be a true artist. It’s horrendous behavior that he’s been getting away with for years because of his status as a famous artist.

During one of these sessions, he asks a female student what she paints with, and she gives a puzzled look before answering, “My brush?” That’s the wrong answer for Richard, who responds by pointing to a male student and says that the male student “paints with his cock. You paint with your cunt.”

Before the shocked and embarrassed female student can say anything, Richard sneers, “Maybe I should’ve taken a sensitivity training class before I came in today.” He tells the female student, in case she’s thinking about quitting on the spot: “The minute you go out that door, you’re telling me and everyone else in the class that you don’t have it. It’s not a painting unless you leave a piece of yourself on the canvas.” Rather than walking out of the class, the female student stays, probably out of fear.

In other class session, Richard asks a male student to explain the inspiration and meaning for one of the student’s paintings that has been completed and is sitting on an easel. The nervous and tongue-tied student can’t really answer the question, so Richard takes the painting and destroys it by smashing it on top of an easel. The shocked student is crushed by this humiliating act.

Claire is shown in the movie having a meeting with a school administrator, who tells Claire that the school had no choice but to fire Richard because of all the complaints that he was getting over the years. Claire’s reaction is to get angry and tell the administrator that Richard is just temperamental because that’s just part of his creative process and that the school should feel lucky to have Richard teaching there. The administrator takes out her phone and shows Claire a video of the incident where Richard destroyed the student’s painting. Claire just clucks her mouth and looks away, as if she doesn’t want to believe that Richard is that bad.

As Claire leaves the building in a huff, she removes one of Richard’s donated paintings that was on display in the building’s lobby. When a school employee tries to stop Claire from taking the painting, which was given as a gift to the school, Claire haughtily replies that the school was happy to use Richard’s name to attract students, and she thinks she has a right to take back the painting since Richard doesn’t work there anymore.

This scene is problematic but entirely consistent with Claire’s enabler attitude about the troublesome way that Richard mistreats other people. Claire doesn’t just stand by and do nothing; she vehemently defends Richard, despite knowing how much he hurts other people. There are plenty of real-life examples of people who are married to famous and powerful abusers, but they stay in marriages like this because they don’t want to give up access to power, which usually involves money and massive egos.

At home, Richard is an emotionally unavailable husband who is prone to unprovoked temper tantrums. And he’s far from a passionate lover. There’s a sex scene in the movie between Richard and Claire where he has some performance problems that Claire is understanding about and seems to be used to experiencing.

Earlier in the film, Claire asks her housekeeper Joyce (played by Catherine Curtin) why Joyce left her husband Bill and got divorced. Joyce replies, “I guess you could say we left each other … I didn’t know until Bill moved out how unhappy I’d been.” This conversation is an indication that Claire has also contemplated leaving Richard and divorcing him.

Although “The Artist’s Wife” has some realistic dialogue and acting, where the movie falters is in some of the hokey and predictable scenarios that are in the story. (Dolby wrote the movie’s screenplay with Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian.) In one scene, Claire is in her kitchen and squeezing a pomegranate to make some juice. She’s wearing a white T-shirt, and some of the pomegranate juice gets on the shirt. She then crushes the rest of the pomegranate so more juice can be spilled on her, as if her shirt is an art canvas.

It’s at this point you know that Claire’s desire to become a painter again is somehow “awakened.” And sure enough, Claire suddenly starts to paint as if her life depended on it. (Just like Richard, she does abstract art.) She buys art supplies and finds uses a barn-like shed on her property as her secret studio. Despite this reignited urge to paint again, she’s still afraid of what Richard will think.

Another motivation for Claire starting to create art again is when she visits an old friend she hasn’t seen in about 10 years: an avant-garde European artist named Ada Risi (played by Stefanie Powers), who just happens to have a retrospective exhibit in New York City. Claire goes to the exhibit, which has a lot of modern and futuristic pieces, and admires the art displays, probably with a little bit of envy. At the exhibit space, Claire has a friendly reunion with Ada, who definitely is an uninhibited free spirit, because during Claire’s visit, Ada does a photo session fully nude with other naked people.

There’s also a subplot about how Claire tries to get to know Angela and Gogo better, which means that Claire is also spending more time with Danny. When Claire and Danny first met, she assumed that he was gay, just like Angela. But he cheerfully corrected her and told her that he’s straight. You can easily predict the scenario that eventually happens between Claire and Danny.

“The Artist’s Wife” tries very hard to make it look like Claire is having some kind of feminist awakening in the last third of the movie. But it’s a false impression because she makes choices that all come back to how she feels in relation to her suffocating marriage to Richard, instead of how she feels as an individual. And she never really confronts Richard and holds him accountable for how he’s mistreated her and other people. Throughout the story, Claire goes out of her way to please Richard instead of being honest with him over how she really feels.

The movie also has a very “straight male gaze” to it, because only Olin is shown in a state of undress in the bedroom scenes. There’s a scene where Olin is standing around in a lacy bikini lingerie, as the camera lingers on her toned body. And the full-frontal nude scene with Powers also makes sure to highlight her physically fit body.

There’s almost a self-congratulatory way that director Dolby frames these fully nude and partially nude scenes with the women, as if to say, “See, I’m showing that women over the age of 60 can be sexy.” But it’s not exactly feminist when the male lead and supporting characters aren’t filmed in the same way. Jogia, who plays Danny, is a very good-looking man, and Danny might or might not end up being a “boy toy” for Claire. And yet, Jogia isn’t even seen with his shirt off in the movie.

There are so many things in the movie that are reminders that although the movie is called “The Artist’s Wife,” the women are written as being hovering entities in Richard’s orbit. The character of Angela remains an enigma and could have been written better. The whole purpose of having Angela in the story is so that Richard can get a chance to redeem himself.

During many parts of the movie, Claire is almost like a supporting character, because she spends so much time focused on Richard’s wants and needs and cleaning up his messes. And she literally cleans up after him in more than one scene, such as when he smashes a bowl full of cereal on the kitchen floor, or when Claire comes home to find out that Richard has destroyed all of the furniture in the living room.

It’s questionable if “The Artist’s Wife” is really more concerned about the wife’s self-esteem or the husband’s redemption. The movie wants to give safe and predictable answers, by showing some trite scenarios that don’t always ring true. The most emotional authenticity in the movie comes from how Dern and Olin bring their characters to life in depicting a marriage that is a lot unhealthier than the spouses would like to admit.

Strand Releasing released “The Artist’s Wife” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on September 25, 2020.