Back in the 1987, when the Village Voice ran a special feature praising a feminist, pro-abortion (“the rabbit died”) agenda in the infidelity/promiscuity/stalker hit Fatal Attraction, a film-school friend cut through the trendy symbol-reading and simply noted, “Glenn Close is playing AIDS.”
Now, in The Wife, Close plays #MeToo, #TimesUp, and Hillary Clinton. She’s Joan Castleman, a stoic figure of female ambition — so alabaster white that she sometimes resembles a George Washington portrait — who is oppressed by her dishonest, needy husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), a novelist who just received the Nobel Prize in Literature. This hilarious, trendy role has put Close on the fast track of the current awards race — part of film-industry mania that is unconcerned with film art and more interested in rewarding topical subjects and politically correct attitudes.
It’s a good opportunity to see how this self-delusion works: From the start, director Björn Runge frequently cuts to Close making Susan Alexander’s “What about me!” grimace. Sure, enough, The Nation praises the characterization as “a woman of many layers and volumes,” showing Joan’s “voicelessness.” This makes The Wife a pseudo-sophisticated melodrama about sexism in the academic and publishing worlds, inspired by post–2016 election resentment. (Joan’s WASP defensiveness evokes Clinton’s comment to NPR about why women, in her view, are disinclined to support female candidates: “I’m talking principally about white women — they will be under tremendous pressure from fathers and husbands and boyfriends and male employers not to vote for ‘the girl.’”)
The Wife endorses the sour grapes felt by a begrudging class of otherwise privileged women who blame others for the choices they made themselves. Joan’s 40-year marriage to Joe was based on her maintaining the ruse that he was the household’s dominant intellect and artist. (Anyone who saw Big Eyes, about the art world’s controversy over the work of married artists Margaret and Walter Keane, will yawn at The Wife’s predictable plot turns.)
The Nobel prizes have not been the same since its “Peace” prize was awarded as a participation trophy to Barack Obama in 2009 (a sexual-assault scandal even preempted presentation of last year’s Nobel literary giveaway). The Wife, adapted from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, further trivializes the Scandinavian tradition. I appreciated the rehearsal scene where Joe is coached to bow before the King of Sweden — a neat demonstration that the Nobel ceremony follows patriarchal hegemony. But I especially liked the many laughable scenes of elite chatter (“So you’re going to Stockholm!”); literary name-dropping (“They’re knocking out a cover story on Bill Clinton for Joe!”); literary bigotry (“Every publisher has a Jewish writer, you got one?”); and WASP effusiveness (“My grandchild who is now beautifully floating in my daughter’s amniotic fluid”).
The Wife isn’t exactly rancid like Vice, The Favourite, or Suspiria. It’s just risible. It cannot be taken seriously as feminist high dudgeon. Elizabeth McGovern’s flashback appearance in a bit role as a drunken novelist, raging about publishing-industry misogyny to a young naïve Joan, accidentally recalls McGovern’s more incisive — and sensual — performance playing Mary McCarthy’s sexually active heroine in the TV-movie version of The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit. But The Wife doesn’t work on the same sophisticated level; even the flashback scene where young Joan discovers a diaphragm and spermicidal jelly in the boudoir of Joe’s first wife seems goofy.
Runge and screenwriter Jane Anderson’s puerile dramatic friction contributes to a dishonest, #TimesUp mythology; they deny the fact that career-minded men and women are both on the make. The Wife is not Strindbergian or Bergmanesque tragedy. It’s a gender-role tantrum rather than an exploration of gender-role consciousness like that compelling Au Paris song “Sex Without Stress” in which Lesley Woods sang “To get what you expect / That’s fidelity /Roles give you cramp.”
This faux-literary film is simply intended to undermine the canon and the culture simultaneously. When Close’s Joan tells an over-inquisitive biographer, “Please don’t paint me as a victim, I am much more interesting than that,” her smirk covers the fact that she’s merely reenacting the Fatal Attraction line “I won’t be ignored!”