To be a muse is to sign a raw deal, for muses are relegated to an ancillary status in which their talents serve their partner rather than themselves. They are the pseudo-collaborator who’s never creative in their own right. Spare a thought, then, for Claire Smythson (Lena Olin), because she’s not so much the muse to her husband Richard (Bruce Dern), a famous abstract artist, but the maid, manager and mother.
Richard is the proverbial artistic ego – pretentious, self indulgent, and convinced of his own eccentric genius. Difficult and recalcitrant, he knows that Claire will deal with the consequences of his moods and self-destruction. His seminars at a local art school, for example, turn into theatrical provocations that are a big middle finger to the modish sensibilities of trigger warnings and safe spaces. When the complaints reach the dean, it is Claire who’s called to the office. Back at home, it’s not uncommon for Richard to spurn her attempts at conversation as he tends to his latest masterpiece.
Yet all of this bluster and arrogance belies a relationship that’s tried, tested and intimate. They work despite all of their faults. Alas, this is threatened when Richard is diagnosed with dementia, which sharpens his mood swings to the point of angry, vicious outbursts. However, this is not Still Alice. The sobering revelation of his illness is distracted – indeed, sidelined – by Claire’s search for creative meaning. Exasperated by playing second fiddle, she sets herself up in a barn (alright for some) and channels her own brand of abstract artistry, slathering her canvas with broad, messy strokes.
Tom Dolby’s film is a well-performed drama with natural, affectionate work from Dern and Olin, but this it is a very low stakes affair. Yes, Richard’s condition is a bleak prospect, but The Artist’s Wife isn’t interested in that. Rather, its concern lies with the soul searching of a rich kept woman who feels she’s lost her creative spark. This is not what you’d call… urgent. Sure, Claire may feel sidelined, but she also has every privilege one could hope for. And while her marriage has its problems, it’s really quite mild in the grand scheme of human interaction.
The story’s supporting threads do not help this softness of narrative. When Claire reaches out to Angela (Juliet Rylance), Richard’s estranged daughter, we go through the old process of angsty resistance and begrudging reconciliation. It’s symptomatic of a film that’s fluent but trite, watchable but uninvolving.