“Lee Krasner. Elaine De Kooning. Camille Claudel. Dora Maar. History is filled with female artists who have supported their more famous husbands or partners,” says writer-director Tom Dolby of The Artist’s Wife, “a tribute to these women, a contemporary imagining of the journey of the stronger woman behind the man—and what happens when the relationship begins to crumble due to circumstances beyond either person’s control.”
“Showcasing themes of loyalty, new beginnings, personal sacrifice, and life choices in a nuanced way, The Artist’s Wife reclaims the narrative of spouses who support unconditionally,” said Benjamin Cowley, CEO Gravel Road Distribution Group. “The film also inspires with quiet courage in the face of challenging circumstances” he added.
In The Artist’s Wife, Claire (Lena Olin) lives a domestic life in the Hamptons as the wife of celebrated artist Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern). Once a promising painter herself, Claire now lives in the shadow of her husband’s illustrious career. While preparing work for his final show, Richard’s moods become increasingly erratic, and he is diagnosed with dementia. As his memory and behaviour deteriorate, she shields his condition from the art community while trying to reconnect him with his estranged daughter and grandson from a previous marriage. Challenged by the loss of her world as she knew it, Claire must now decide whether to stand with Richard on the sidelines or step into the spotlight herself.
Statement from Writer-Director Tom Dolby
In our cinematic landscape today, the experience of the middle-aged woman as she enters the third act of life is often ignored. In The Artist’s Wife, Claire’s passage is about new beginnings, rediscovering the parts of herself that she left behind during the early years of her marriage, as well as recognizing qualities she never knew she had.
Stories about women spending their lives supporting their husbands are not, rightly so, where our culture is oriented today. They may strike us as retrograde or as well-trodden ground, not worthy of exploration. In The Artist’s Wife, we wanted to reclaim this narrative, showing the tail end of this journey of living in—and coming out of—the shadows.
Though we see Claire making great sacrifices, with dignity, to the film’s conclusion, we know she has a future beyond that with her husband. Claire’s story, the part that we see, is one of commitment, of sticking with the life she has chosen, at least until circumstances change. My hope is that The Artist’s Wife honors the many women and men who have stuck by their partners, artists or otherwise, through challenging circumstances.
Though the film’s story begins with Richard’s disease causing the inciting series of incidents, The Artist’s Wife is not an “Alzheimer’s movie” in the traditional sense. Though there are many fine films in this subgenre, our story is instead about the caregiver, about Claire’s experience with the disease.
Six years ago, I was inspired by what my mother went through in supporting my father in his struggle with Alzheimer’s. As the years went by after his death, I noticed that in film, the perspective of the caretaker was largely ignored. Whether one views our story as an Alzheimer’s movie or not, Richard’s dementia represents to Claire a call to reclaim her own past when it is, like his memories, in danger of slipping away. His illness prompts her passage into her creative soul, not initially to protect his dignity, but to save her own. These two goals collide at the end of the film, and she must make the decision that is right for her.
Society and popular culture have told us that the years around sixty are about slowing down, about retiring, a word that originated as meaning “to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion.”
But why should the third act of life be one of retreating, repressing, hiding? My hope for Claire at the end of the film is that she is ready for a new chapter, one in which she will shine as brightly as her husband once did. “The problem with being constantly surrounded by bright lights,” she says, “is that they make you feel there’s already enough light in the world.” May the film’s narrative allow Claire to release this belief and let her talent run free, its brilliant beams lighting up the sky.