My Wife is an Actress is exactly what it promises to be. It’s about a man married to an actress, starring a man married to an actress. The actress, Charlotte, is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Her husband, Yvan, is played by her husband Yvan Attal. One gets the sense that what we see on screen is a true sense of what it might be like to be married to an actress, although Attal and Gainsbourg say this isn’t so (see Movie Habit’s interview).
The Jealousy Plant
R for nudity and sexuality
My Wife is an Actress is about jealousy. Yvan benefits from his wife’s fame — cops let them off without a ticket; restaurants take reservations even when they’re full. But he’s also jealous. Why shouldn’t he be able to get a table? Why shouldn’t he get the same leeway from cops? And why should he have to put up with constant interruptions from autograph-seekers in public places?
A friend of his sister’s fertilizes the seed of jealousy when Yvan chances to meet him in a bar. After complimenting Yvan on his sexy wife, the friend asks if he isn’t bothered by Charlotte kissing on-screen, tongues and all? And what about nude scenes, doesn’t that bug Yvan? Charlotte has always told Yvan that it’s all make-believe, and Yvan chooses to believe her, but the fact is, kissing is kissing, and this annoying friend has seen his wife in the nude.
The seed of jealousy gets watered, too. John (Terrence Stamp) is the spoiled English actor who thinks he’s God’s gift to young actresses. Charlotte’s next movie is opposite John, and sure enough, there is to be a love scene. Yvan prefers she wouldn’t go through with it, but as Charlotte says, acting is her job.
As for Charlotte, between her husband’s complete lack of trust and John’s relentless passes, well, maybe she accepts “God’s gift” just a little, adding the sunshine that allows Yvan’s jealousy to grow into a proud, gigantic weed.
At one point, Yvan sighs “my wife’s in a cult.” What else would you call an exclusive group of emotionally fragile people who are willing to do anything their leader asks of them? To help himself cope and understand, Yvan signs up for acting lessons. He shows up at class, nervous, and is immediately told by the “cult” leader to “give me the birth of a flower.” After an awkward, silent moment of resistance, he does. And he’s not half bad.
Yvan meets several young women in the class, and one of them seems to have a crush on him. To make matters worse, the two are cast together in a class play as lovers. Yvan is about to get a first-hand taste of what it’s like to pretend to be in love, to pretend to kiss, without “really” kissing or being in love.
Yvan discovers something that Charlotte never told him: that sometimes, if you say something often enough, you begin to believe it. The young lady who plays the smitten girl really falls for Yvan, and he’s hard pressed to turn her down. With his wife in England filming God-knows-what with John God’s-Gift, perhaps he should give this young Garbo a go.
The Sister Subplot
There is a subplot with Yvan’s sister that has earned some controversy among critics. I might not have mentioned it, except I’ve seen other critics speculate on its importance. I had the chance to ask Attal about his take on it.
Noemie Lvovsky plays Nathalie, Yvan’s sister. Nathalie is a Jew by birth but only goes to synagogue once a year. Her husband is a goy who doesn’t want his yet-unborn son circumcised, but Nathalie is adamant that he should be. Neither parent really has a strong position, yet it’s fiercely important to both of them.
The subplot goes to show that plain, human stubbornness can make a fight bigger than it really is, like Yvan and Charlotte’s arguments over kissing and nudity at work. Attal himself, though, says that Nathalie’s fight, unlike Yvan and Charlotte’s, is actually about something important. The key scene in the subplot comes, for Attal, when Yvan and his sister have dinner at their parents’ house, and all Maman and Papa can talk about is Charlotte this and Charlotte that. Nathalie’s problem of how to raise their child is ignored when someone famous is at the table.
My first reaction to My Wife is an Actress was lukewarm. The novelty of having the characters named after the actors was as much a distraction as an inspiration. The movie came across as a gratingly neurotic romantic comedy, one in which a husband’s jealousy became a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t nearly as funny as I was sure it was supposed to be.
On reflection, there is a lot going on in My Wife is an Actress; probably more than Attal specifically intended. It’s as though Yvan is trapped in a world so big and complex he can’t get a handle on it, and it drives him a little crazy. Thinking of it in terms of black comedy rather than romantic comedy, the movie seems funnier and more inspired.
So given its complexity, I’ll recommend My Wife is an Actress. Maybe my first reaction was right, but any movie that sticks with you as long as this one did deserves a little extra credit.