“To Take a Wife” is the first of a trilogy that brings into focus what it means to be a wife in Israel. The wife, Viviane, from the beginning is the focus of male attention. We see her face, hard and grim, not yet angry, but listening and not being heard.
Before we hear her speak, we hear the voices of men. They are her relatives and her husband. They tell her, “You must learn how to give up” and tell her that without marriage she has no worth, no future. “Just go and look at yourself in the mirror. You used to be beautiful now you are in the dumps.”
What is a woman worth in Israel. This is the question that seems to be asked in the trilogy that begins with “To Take a Wife.” The movie premiered in 26 January 2005 (“Ve’Lakhta Lehe Isha”) in France and is the first effort by directors Ronit Elkabetz, and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. The two also co-wrote and Ronit stars.
Set in 1979, “To Take a Wife” sets us in the home of Moroccan Jewish immigrants in Israel.
“You must learn how to give up,” Viviane is told.
“Just go and look at yourself in the mirror. You used to be beautiful, now you are in the dumps.”
“An abandoned wife is no better than a childless wife,” Viviane is told early in the movie. Viviane has four children. The youngest is a baby. The oldest is a teenage boy. The older girl and boy are different stages of passive-aggressive—sullen to silently reluctant. They are witnesses to the lack of love in their household, the claustrophobia that breeds hate and eventually anger.
“If only you knew how other people live, you’d kneel down every day and kiss his hands and feet,” because he doesn’t gamble, drink or fool around. Twenty years of marriage and four children.
It is easy to look away from Viviane because she is often ugly with anger. She is the one who screams and who yells. Yet there are hints that her husband has a brittle hardness that makes life with him difficult. He won’t learn to drive. He won’t speak with a co-worker who eats pork. He resists going on vacation with their friends, her friends and not his.
Viviane works at home. She lives with her mother-in-law. She longs to get out, to a cafe to a cinema—with her husband. She asks him, when, when was the last time.
And we see the softness in Viviane when she meets with her former lover. In the past, she was beautiful with hope. Yet he betrays her as well.
This is the start of Viviane’s journey, one that reveals the universals of a problematic marriage.
You might not find this movie comforting, but I did. I’ve been there, the raging and the anger in the face of passive-aggressive assertion of power. How easy it is for others to judge him reasonable and her, being the emotional one, unreasonable. Yet by the last movie in this trilogy, Viviane’s husband will be revealed as the kind of man he truly is. In “To Take a Wife,” his character is more ambivalent and one can only be sure that Viviane is unhappy and that her husband is still satisfied with the status quo. To take a wife for him, is a lifetime commitment and to take is not necessarily to give.
“To Take a Wife” won a FIPRESCI Prize at the Ankara Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival and Ronit was nominated for Best Actress by the Israeli Film Academy. The movie also won a Critics Award Special Mention at the Hamburg Film Festival. In Venice the movie won the Audience Award.
The movie can be viewed VoD on the Israeli Film Center for $6. In French, Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.