By David Pountain
European Film Market review
Director: Katja Wik
Made up of a trio of parallel narratives linked mainly by theme, it’s telling that The Ex-Wife chooses to name itself after a character featured in just one of its three stories. For while the alternately liberating and tense nights-out and days-in enjoyed and endured by The Girlfriend and The Wife (as they’re respectively named in the opening credits) never truly intersect with the routines of The Ex-Wife herself, director Katja Wik presents enough subtle overlap in the issues for these three stories to almost evoke different stages in one failed relationship.
Between scenes of The Ex-Wife reflecting on how it all went wrong and what the future may hold, we witness the early seeds of potential destruction in the relationships of The Girlfriend and The Wife as each are dragged into roles they never wanted to adopt thanks to the pressures put upon them (perhaps unwittingly) by their respective partners. It is this implicit interconnectivity between its three character arcs that helps The Ex-Wife overcome its excessively mild delivery to ultimately succeed as a touching, perceptive, often amusing depiction of the emotionally and socially straitjacketing repercussions of tethering your life to another.
The best half hour of The Ex-Wife is its first – perhaps because it’s the one that feels the loosest and freest. Adopting a playful rhythm and tone not too far removed from the more outwardly absurd work of Roy Andersson, this introductory section presents a series of mostly humorous vignettes from the daily struggles of life. It’s only once the film truly settles into its three parallel plots and tones down on its eccentricities for the sake of moving things forward that The Ex-Wife ironically loses some of its momentum. Though some of the charm of the film’s first third certainly remains for the duration, the individual conflicts at play in the film’s narrative triptych are generally too vague in nature and distant in presentation for these scenes function as viscerally arresting relationship drama, leading to stretches that feel perfectly watchable but dramatically anaemic.
Luckily, as well as imbuing her work with immediately endearing personality, Wik shows that she’s able to play the long game, rewarding patient viewers with poignant contrasts and quiet revelations that gradually unfurl over the course of the feature and that can perhaps only be fully appreciated in film’s closing minutes. The story of The Girlfriend proves particularly affecting in the long run as she goes from defiantly stumbling through the town in high heels – brashly ululating at a stranger while he urinates in the street – to meekly taking a backseat to her boyfriend’s extroverted behaviour.
Yet The Girlfriend’s bittersweet character arc wouldn’t have been quite so meaningful had it not been placed alongside The Wife’s need to adopt the role of no-fun party-pooper in response to her husband’s childish and drunken behaviour; nor would either of these stories have worked so well had they not been interspersed with The Ex-Wife’s trying experiences in the aftermath of her split. In much the way that life itself can sometimes seem, Katja Wik’s film can struggle to make much of an impact on a moment-by-moment level but its wider interconnected web of experiences adds up to something more resonant and profound than its individual parts suggest.