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THE ARTIST'S WIFE: Messy -- but countercultural

* * 1/2 (out of four)

The script for “The Artist’s Wife” constitutes what might charitably be called a “hot mess”; yet the film is worth watching if only for its boldly countercultural take on women and marriage.

Newly available for streaming, this 2019 festival feature stars Bruce Dern as an aging American artist who is plagued by Alzheimer’s as he struggles with a set of new paintings for his eagerly awaited gallery show. Lena Olin plays Claire, Smythson’s long-suffering wife, who long ago put her own artistic career on hold and even now continues to subjugate most of her existence to his daily needs.

As he tells an interviewer, “I create the art; she creates the rest of our lives.”

In almost any other modern movie, this story would quickly become a screed about Claire’s oppression, the dreariness of her self-abnegation and probably also her need to take a long-term lover who will pay more attention to her.

And indeed these issues are addressed in the film, which shows us all the difficulty, frustration and tedium of this woman’s chosen role. But in the hands of an excellent and very nuanced Olin, we understand and sympathize with Claire’s devotion; even her impressively self-effacing move at the end comes across as admirable, authentic and thematically apt. Remarkably, both she and we can be at peace with her life-long decision to serve someone else with unstinting abandon.

Dern is also strong, as are Juliet Rylance as Smythson’s daughter from a previous marriage, and Avan Jogia as the daughter’s live-in male babysitter, Danny.

As for the aforementioned “hot mess”: The screenplay feels extremely uneven, with trite and grating dialog that reaches its nadir in Claire’s hard question, “What’s wrong with you?” -- to which Smythson answers, “I’ve got problems.” Needless to say, this is not the kind of crackling exchange that makes viewers glad they ponied up $6 and an hour and a half of their lives.

Worse yet, Rylance’s character takes wild mood swings, alternately hostile, transparent, standoffish and teary, while the scenes with Danny are so smooth and vital, they feel like they came from a different pen. Well, except for the ultimate outcome of his art-and-wine evening with Claire, which runs bafflingly counter to every other decision she’s made. So yeah … maybe a different writer there too (the credits list three).

There’s also brief but very graphic nudity that is pretty much 100% gratuitous.

However, the movie’s biggest problem is that it’s all but impossible to understand what Claire sees in Richard -- or why she married him in the first place. For most of the film, he is intensely misanthropic, demanding, unappreciative -- frankly, a total seven-letter A-word; and we’re never sure if this is an outgrowth of his dementia or just some appalling lifelong character trait. If the script had made more effort to straighten this out, “The Artist’s Wife” would be a much more enjoyable film.

But then, maybe films about Alzheimer’s weren’t really meant to be all that enjoyable.

“The Artist’s Wife,”

directed by Tom Dolby

Run time: 94 min.

Rated R for language, brief frontal nudity and sexuality

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