Modern Masterpiece "The Wife" Tells Us More About Mental Disorders Than We May Actually Think

Updated on February 18, 2019
Klara Willing profile image

While recovering from the abuse, I not only write, I also watch films, and this time I stumbled across one speaking directly to my heart.

If I don’t [thank my wife], I’ll look like a narcissistic bastard.”

But you are, darling.”

To me these lines are the most important of the film “The Wife”, directed by an incredibly talented Björn Runge. They address what is essential to the plot – the insight of a dysfunctional family with a narcissistic dominator who strategically and cleverly managed to keep his family under his control. I have been abused by a narcisstistic mother myself and I know what it’s like to live in a dysfunctional family where one parent dominates and the others are dominated.

The story follows an older married couple, Joe and Joan (played by Jonathan Price and Glenn Close), and how they travel to Stockholm, together with their son David (Max Irons), so that Joe may receive his Nobel Prize of Literature. Via flashbacks it is slowly revealed – and with the help of the present journalist Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater) – that not Joe himself is reason for his success but his wife Joan. We follow Joan’s emotional journey to finally making the decision to leave her husband. While preparing to do so, Joe dies due to a heart attack.

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Unlike physical abuse where the victim is violently held under control, psychological abuse is much more subtle and far more difficult to trace. A victim may suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, but he/she cannot show any scars, but has to speak or write to make others believe their report. People with NPD (Narcisstistic Personality Disorder) like Joe have strategies; they have a way of manipulating their victims to make them stay, since someone leaving them is the worst that could possibly happen. This habit of emotional manipulation is perfectly portrayed in “The Wife”.

Only after several scenes we find out that Joan is a writer herself. As she states she “was” a writer but then gave it up because of her being a woman (“I had very low expectations of what I could accomplish as a female writer.”). But she lies. Over fourty years, since the time she and Joe came together, she wrote his books and published them under his name, so that he could become a famous author.

Adoration and admiration is what a narcissist wants. If he doesn’t get it he threatens you with your worst fears so that you eventually give up.

There is one crucial scene where Joe’s earliest manipulation takes place, also proving his NPD. It’s a flashback and it starts with Joan’s troubled face and her very thin voice, obviously being extremely uncomfortable and shaky. Joe’s manuscript of a novel is placed before her and she only dares looking at the pages and not into his eyes while she slowly and very compassionately – but terribly afraid – tells him that his work is no good. She had all right to be frightened because what followed was a heavy tantrum; only not by a little child but a grown man.

Tantrums are very common with narcissisist. Especially with those called “covert narcissisists”, meaning those who are more difficult to spot and much more emotional. Narcissists are adults with an emotional intelligence of a three-year-old. If they don’t get what they want or don’t hear what they want to hear, they start screaming, crying, shouting, and accusing their relatives of all kind of crimes, even some that have nothing to do with the situation.

Joe’s reaction could be called an “over-reaction”. He suddenly starts shouting and, with tears in his eyes, tells Joan that they can’t be together anymore, he will leave her. Instead of sensing the injustice that is done towards her, Joan feels so uncomfortable and terrified that she tries everything to soothe him - “Joe, just because I don’t like your novel doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” But she has made a terrible mistake by accusing Joe being a bad writer (which wasn’t her intention, but he saw it like that), so she grows desperate. Joe seems unable to calm down until Joan can’t hold herself back any longer and shouts out: “You’re the brilliant one! You’re the one who has something to say, not me!”. Begging him under tears to stay, he forgives her.

I could feel with Joan because I’ve been in this kind of situation so many times with my mother. Only now, having someone telling me (my therapist) that I was a victim of emotional manipulation by a narcissist, I’m able to lift myself from my own accusation and to finally point the finger at her. Stabbing yourself is what a narcissist wants. Adoration and admiration is what he wants. If he doesn’t get it he threatens you with your worst fears so that you eventually give up.

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But after fourty years there is hope for Joan. Nathaniel Bone, intenting to write a biography about Joe, confronts her with her husband’s problematic personality (his secret affairs, his pretending to be the famous writer while Joan hides in his shadow). She rejects him throughout the film, but in the end he was the one redeeming her and she knows that. Nathaniel is in some ways Joan’s therapist. And not only Joan’s, also David’s.

Having been the child of a dysfuntional family myself, I felt for David the most. He wants to be a writer, already trying his first drafts which he passes on to his parents so that they could give their opinion. He is terribly unhappy because of his father’s ignorance and acting of superiority, and obviously struggles with depression and suppressed anger.

I had the luck of not wanting to follow my mother’s footsteps. Being passionate about acting and writing had nothing to do with her, so she had no reason to feel threatened by my skills. She gave no encouragements (which every child needs, though) and that already hurt me severely, but in this case I wasn’t her rival. David was a rival in his father’s eyes. Even though Joan was the real writer of the family Joe acted like a pro, daring to judge about his son’s talent. Joe’s violent outbursts (again over-reactions) made David feel powerless and desperate. He couldn’t even turn to his mother, since Joan was even more in Joe’s control than he was; and this is the biggest pain a child can suffer from – hatred and neglect. But feeling so neglected, abandoned and misunderstood gave him also the chance of withdrawing from his family and doubting what was going on. Finding out (via his “therapist” Nathaniel) that his mother was the true writer/”star” of the family gave him hope and was eventually his redemption.

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It’s no doubt that the scene in which Joan confronts Joe is the climax of the whole story. Glenn Close’s acting is remarBut after fourty years there is hope for Joan. Nathaniel Bone, intenting to write a biography about Joe, confronts her with her husband’s problematic personality (his secret affairs, his pretending to be the famous writer while Joan hides in his shadow). She rejects him throughout the film, but in the end he was the one redeeming her and she knows that. Nathaniel is in some ways Joan’s therapist. And not only Joan’s, also David’s.

Having been the child of a dysfuntional family myself, I felt for David the most. He wants to be a writer, already trying his first drafts which he passes on to his parents so that they could give their opinion. He is terribly unhappy because of his father’s ignorance and acting of superiority, and obviously struggles with depression and suppressed anger.

I had the luck of not wanting to follow my mother’s footsteps. Being passionate about acting and writing had nothing to do with her, so she had no reason to feel threatened by my skills. She gave no encouragements (which every child needs, though) and that already hurt me severely, but in this case I wasn’t her rival. David was a rival in his father’s eyes. Even though Joan was the real writer of the family Joe acted like a pro, daring to judge about his son’s talent. Joe’s violent outbursts (again over-reactions) made David feel powerless and desperate. He couldn’t even turn to his mother, since Joan wakable. The camera’s focus is on her while she announces to leave Joe and never to return. We can see every conflict that is going on; all the suppressed anger that is finally about to burst out, her determination to not be lured in again and the sadness and fear of having to leave behind something that she knows so well.

Every victim of any kind of abuse knows how difficult it is to actually leave the abuser, even though they sense it means their freedom. It’s most often traumatising since the abuser tries everything he can to make the victim stay. For the narcissist it’s his last act of manipulation and Joe tries, indeed, everything he can. He shouts angrily, he cries desperately, he demands fiercly, and he begs on his knees. Looking closely at Joan’s face we see how terribly painful this situation is for her. We don’t know if she would have won this fight, but Joe’s sudden death makes her decision final.

In the end we have a very long medium shot, having caught Joan in slow motion to make it even more vibrating to read Glenn Close’s remarkable open face. Everything she felt I felt as well. The disbelief, the sadness, the shock, but at the same time the slow realisation to finally be free. Joe’s death is her birth. This is emphasised by the falling snow we see outside the window behind Joan’s back – snow is a most beloved symbol in cinema, announcing a new beginning.

The film closes with Joan sitting in a plane beside her sleeping son, reading and, once again, rejecting Nathaniel’s proposal of giving him her account of her married life with Joe. We can already see on her face that this rejection is not the same rejection as it was before. This time we see triumph, a smile that slowly grows stronger, before the camera follows Joan’s hand as it touches empty pages of a journal. Without words we understand that she is going to write down her story. Everything. From beginning to end.

In the end, Joan has won. We know we can expect a brighter future because the plane flies towards a sparkling colourful sunset, giving us hope and a feeling of relief.

“The Wife” gave me hope indeed. Not only because it realistically portrays narcissism with its traumatising effects on its victims, but even more because it shows that escape and recovery is possible. Victims need to be reminded of that over and over again. Because a narcissist’s behaviour doesn’t die with his death, it is imprinted on the victim’s very soul. But writing heals. Like Joan we have the chance of recovery even after fourty years of constant trauma.

When I heard Glenn Close speaking about her role in “The Wife” it made me sad to hear her not even mentioning the words narcissism or abuse (“Glenn Close Talks About The Wife, Late Night with Seth Mayers). But this only shows the problem we have in our society – NPD is a common disorder which looks almost normal in those eyes that have not seen the truth. Today we have neuroscience and compassionate approaches towards mental health issues; in other words, today we have the skills to make an actual change. But the first step needs to be awareness. “The Wife” takes part in taking this first step. Watching it gives us the feeling of knowing what is portrayed. The story opens our eyes if we only let it. Let’s now take the second step and learn from this modern masterpiece and make an actual change by mentioning narcissism and abuse when talking about this compelling story.

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