If you want people to watch your work then making a three hour film is a big decision. So is choosing domestic violence as your subject. It follows that making a three hour film about domestic violence is a very big decision. The subject matter may be important, but will it reach an audience? Philip Groning must think so, as he has written, produced, edited, photographed and directed The Police Officer’s Wife, starring Alexandra Finder and David Zimmerschied.
My neighbour in the Venice premiere screening fell asleep. Luckily this wasn’t an issue for long as he soon woke himself up with a loud snore. But he wasn’t the only one who was finding The Police Officer’s Wife heavy going. It is a drama about a one-child family with the pacing of a game of Test cricket heading for a draw. I would like to summarise the plot, but there is none. A previously-loving father starts hitting his wife pretty much covers it, in fact now you’ve read those eight words there’s no real need to see the film. Structured around chapters, every time the screen faded to black and a new chapter number appeared there was a large exodus from the theatre. Two girls had been employed to stand in the dark and point people to the correct exit. At one point I wondered if it would only be me and the director left in the cinema by the end, but luckily it didn’t come to that.
Chapters in a film are often a means of joining disparate vignettes. I don’t know what you would call a lot of chapters, but this film has over fifty. Rather than giving a pithy title to the ensuing action, the titles are just numbers. Chapter 1… Chapter 2… As though that wasn’t enough, each chapter finishes by telling us ‘End of chapter’. A good proportion of the film would have been titles, except that the whole thing lasted a whopping 175 minutes.
The depiction of the abuse starts off subtly, with more bruises appearing on the wife’s body but no violence being shown. This works well, but eventually the violence comes to the fore. Unfortunately in between we have learned nothing about the two characters that makes us care about them, we have just seen many, many moments in their lives. Some important, some inane. Directors can spend time with a character, eschewing plot to get to understand them. They can also, thanks to the cheapness of digital video, point a camera at an actor and get them to improvise. Once footage is shot though there is obviously a temptation to use it.
There is an interesting, well-shot film hiding somewhere inside The Police Officer’s Wife, but to find it would require harsher editing. Groning says ‘I shoot better films without a script,’ which may or may not be true, but he would shoot better films than this with a firmer hand than his own on the edit. Domestic abuse happens in the most normal of circumstances, and normal life can be boring, but three hours of normal life is far too long. Many scenes are unnecessary, whilst others continue past the point where they should have been cut. We don’t really need to see long scenes of, for example, the recitation of nursery rhymes to camera. I suppose it could be allowed once. But twice?
This film is in competition for the prestigious Leone D’Oro. So far I have only seen one of its competitors, but even so I do not recommend making any large bets that The Police Officer’s Wife will win the prize. The subject gives it bonus points of course, but to really make a change in the world it would be better to come at the subject obliquely, as part of a different, more box-office friendly story. Then opinions might be changed. As it is the only people who will see it will have made the decision to watch a three hour film about domestic violence. Box office figures suggest this will not be a very high number.
At this point I had to stop writing as I was on a vaparetto and beginning to feel queasy.
Verdict: I watched it so you don’t have to.
The Police Officer’s Wife