In “The Artist’s Wife,” Lena Olin plays Claire, the wife of an abstract artist, Richard, played by Bruce Dern. Her life is perfectly composed. That is until Richard is diagnosed with dementia and their perfect world starts to disintegrate.
Written and directed by Tom Dolby, the story is close to his heart, as it was partially inspired by his relationship with his father, Ray Dolby, the sound engineer.
In this Framing the Scene, Dolby and his cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker break down, a key moment in the film — the culmination of tension as Claire returns home one day to a scene of destruction and mess. It is the explosion of Richard’s frustration and her realizing her husband’s decline.
Influences from the ’70s and ’80s
Tom Dolby: The look of the film, up to this point in the movie was so composed. Claire’s world was so organized, rigid and almost geometric. We were inspired by a lot of films from the 1970s and 1980s such as “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Ordinary People.” We noticed that in a lot of the shots, how people were framed by verticals and horizontals, but a lot of verticals.
We thought it was such a great metaphor for how she’s so boxed in with her life because her life is so organized. You see it with the very first scene of her putting things perfectly in the refrigerator. This scene and this sequence was all about the unraveling of that and the explosion of that. This is her version of a horror movie; it’s the worst thing you can imagine happening to her life, to her relationship and this beautiful house where everything is so perfectly composed.
Ryan and I were doing this acting class in my living room, trying hard to deconstruct this moment of “What is she feeling?” “What is she thinking?” “Maybe there’s an intruder in my house?”
She has this realization that it’s her husband, and she comes to that realization in three seconds, and there’s this great zoom-out shot.
With this zoom out, Ryan was outside in the cold snow on a ladder outside the house looking through the window.
We needed to discover this mess as she does and see it from her point of view. She goes into the studio and she doesn’t know what to expect, and she sees him screaming at the canvas. Richard has brought some of the pieces of the living room into the studio and this idea that he’s going to work with them. There are knocked-over lamps and lights on the ground.
Ryan Earl Parker: A few scenes earlier, she is talking to the doctor. She comes out and we do a zoom. For me, the zoom, as we come out from her point of view, as an audience as well, we see as she sees all this carnage. It is quite shocking.
I met Lena and I wanted to have this conversation about lighting. She said, ‘Ryan, light your scene.’ As a DP, that is the best thing I can hear so we can go full force. Bruce is interrogating her, and it’s volatile and scary. I remember seeing her face, and she couldn’t believe the negative battering she was getting. There’s a great discovery when you can go on the shoulder and find the shot. Sometimes there’s an energy from the camera movement and find the shot. We picked one lens and said, ‘Let’s go.’
Dolby: There are a series of small breakdowns that happen in the film. You see it first in the bedroom, and then he throws the painting out of the front door of the house. There’s the horrible moment where he throws the cereal on the ground. There’s a series of things breaking and shattering that leads to this explosion of his anger.
Anger is a big part of dementia, and it eventually has to explode. Even though, this was from Claire’s perspective. We see her anger and how she’s reacting to it.
Parker: The home is cold, sterile and cold and boxy. The studio for Claire is like her womb. It’s warm and inviting. She has this rebirth there of her art. And we leaned into those spaces.
Handheld vs. Dolly
Dolby: There’s a wonderful subjectivity to using handheld, but we use it very selectively and were on sticks for a good portion of the movie. When did switched to handheld, it was a conscious choice. We used it when he throws the painting out, and that cereal scene.
Parker: It reminded me a lot of the ‘70s horror films that I was inspired by. We decided to go hand-held for that. It was a dance, but also, I felt like a referee of a fight as these two people are going at it, and I’m finding my footing in the ring.