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After her last film, the quirky On Body and Soul, described as a rom-com set in an abattoir, won Berlin’s Golden Bear and picked up an Oscar nomination, Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi finally got to make her passion project.
The Story of My Wife is based on the 1946 Hungarian novel by Milán Füst, one of Enyedi’s favorites since she first read it as a teenager. Up-and-coming Dutch actor Gijs Naber stars as Jakob Störr, a no-nonsense ship’s captain who, while on land leave, agrees to a bet to marry the first woman who walks in.
Luckily for him, that woman is Léa Seydoux playing Lizzy, the “wife” of the film’s title, who spontaneously agrees. But in all their years together, the captain will struggle to understand this mysterious woman and try, unsuccessfully, to control her.
Louis Garrel, Luna Wedler and Josef Hader also star. Films Boutique is handling worldwide sales.
Enyedi spoke to The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough ahead of the film’s world premiere in the Cannes competition on July 15 about her fascination with the male gaze, why she recast the film shortly before shooting and how her career took off only after she gave up trying to control it.
It’s not every day a 75-year-old novel gets its first film adaptation. What was your connection to Milán Füst’s book?
The Story of My Wife: The Reminiscences of Captain Storr is a very well-known book. It is quite famous in Hungary and also internationally. It was translated into many languages, but somehow it is not a hit, an easy read.
And it has been quite misunderstood. It’s praised, in my opinion, for the wrong things. It is beautifully written, so everyone praises it for how it is written. Or they just consider the plot of the story – which is very colorful, very lush, very rich and meandering, a One Thousand and One Nights story, and also a passionate love story.
But this writer who was, by the way, a Jewish writer, wrote this book during the Second World War in Budapest when his own life was in danger. The essence of the book, for this guy, sitting in Budapest when the bombs are falling outside as he works on this, is not the love story. It’s about this search of how to live our life, our tiny, very fragile life. And he says, in more than 400 pages, that trying to control our lives, to have control, is the wrong approach. That you have to accept and appreciate that you cannot control life. That life is more elusive, more secretive.
That’s why he chooses a freighter captain as the main hero, to best show the kind of man who wishes this sort of control. This is a man who lives in a very concrete world where he has to make decisions that have very serious outcomes. And so he has to be in control. He knows this world. He has the perfect skill set for that. It’s a very male and very well-known skill set. And then he walks onto dry land, he meets a woman and this skill set becomes totally useless. And the poor guy tries very honestly, again and again, to figure out how the hell to manage to make sense of life.
I hope people don’t misunderstand our film in the same way. I tried, very subtly, to show what is beneath this love story. To show the rumblings of the sea captain’s inner thoughts as he tries to discover how to live.
The film is told very much from Captain Storr’s point of view, from the male perspective. We never get to see Lizzy’s side of the story. We never know what she is thinking.
When we were trying to finance the film, there were some people, for example in France, who asked: “But where is the female perspective?” But that’s exactly the point of the film. It’s to really immerse ourselves in his perspective and his desperate attempts to figure out, to actually use a skill set that is absolutely not useful for what he wants to use it for.
I see it as a very kind and tender farewell to patriarchy. I’m trying to understand this guy, and so many other men like him, who are taught and only given this skill set. From the start, from kindergarten on so many men are told they need to be in control. You will only have a successful life and flourish as a person if you make all the right steps, get the right grades from the right universities, if you have enough money in the bank, if you fulfill certain roles provided by society, if you are in control. I think that is simply missing the point of life. And it’s wasting all this time in this very short life of ours.
How did you cast Gijs Naber for the role of the Captain?
First, we had a Norwegian actor [Anders Baasmo Christiansen] for the role. A very good actor. He spent a long time preparing for the film. But six weeks before shooting, I just made this change. It was heartbreaking for the original actor, but I’m very, very happy I did it. Gijs is perfect in the role. He can really show strength and vulnerability at the same time.
How did you find him?
I’m a passionate teacher of film [at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest]. One of my students, in their diploma film, cast him. It was a deeply different role. He played a porn producer, a very sneaky, disgusting guy. But I felt the potential in him. Casting is very interesting, it is like you are a hunting dog who gets the scent. You can’t explain it, but when you smell it, you know it can only be this person and no other.
Was it similar with Léa Seydoux?
Actually, I wasn’t sure about her at first. Because she is like a rubber ball, very energetic, very lively. Not really the type for Lizzy. But my French producer asked me to meet her. We met in a cafe and I arrived earlier and I watched her walk towards the cafe before she saw me. She was completely alone. And I saw in her a very attractive vulnerability, something I’ve never seen of her in any of her roles. From the moment she entered the cafe, my heart opened up towards her.
You’ve had a very unusual career. Your movie My Twentieth Century was in Cannes in 1989 and won the Camera d’Or for best first feature, Magic Hunter (1994) was in Venice. But you had a lot of projects that didn’t come together. When On Body and Soul won in Berlin, it had 18 years between movies for you. Have you learned to embrace, to accept not having control over your life and career?
I had some really, really bitter years, but if I think back about it, I never stopped wanting to make films and to work on films. When this very bad period started, I had two scripts ready and one script half ready, all of which got very good responses. So there was no reason to drop them. And I pushed and I pushed and they just didn’t happen. I was working day and night and the weekends to make them happen. I felt I was always in a hurry. I felt if I can’t get it done now, I won’t do it ever. The stakes were high. All my muscles were very tense. My job was very tense.
When I finally let it go, then the world came to me, shockingly quickly. I wanted to control and I lost several years with that. But what was so beautiful in all those years was I was able to be with my kids, and they taught me how to play again, to fully relax and be fully open. It’s a special privilege to be able to play and that was something I’d forgotten.
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