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Film Review: ‘Just a Sigh’

A tonally heterogeneous but emotionally coherent dramedy centered around a beautifully modulated turn by Emmanuelle Devos

Cut off from the daily grind by a dead phone battery and overdrawn credit card, a Gallic actress decides to follow her own whims for a day in  “Just a Sigh,” a tonally heterogeneous but emotionally coherent dramedy from Jerome Bonnell (“Queen of Clubs”). This is the young helmer’s fifth and most mature work, frequently using long takes to showcase a beautifully modulated turn from Emmanuelle Devos in something approaching real time. Though tough to pigeonhole genre-wise, the Tribeca competition title should interest upscale arthouse buyers, with the presence of co-star Gabriel Byrne an added marketing bonus.

A striking single take opens the film as it follows Paris-based thesp Alix (Devos) from making a personal phone call backstage to waiting in the wings of a provincial theater before leaping onstage for a performance of Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea.” As in that play — never properly excerpted, a classy move that suggests Bonnell isn’t unnecessarily transfixed by intertextuality — the female protag has to choose between the man she shares her life with and a traveling stranger who arouses an inexplicable passion in her.

Alix — whose b.f., Antoine (voiced by Denis Menichot), remains offscreen — meets the mystery man the next day on the early morning train back to Paris, where she has an audition before having to travel back to Calais for an evening performance. They catch each other’s eye, and the man, who turns out to be an English speaker (Byrne), finally makes conversation with her as they arrive, asking for directions to the Basilica of St. Clotilde.

Drowsy, too shy, not entirely at ease in English and perhaps somewhat nervous and absent-minded because of her upcoming tryout, Alix leaves the enigmatic man be when another passenger steps in to give him more precise directions. But after her somewhat humiliating yet extraordinary audition — a simple, one-sided telephone conversation, impressively played in two entirely different registers — Alix’s thoughts drift back to the stranger on the train. Perhaps subconsciously encouraged by the fact that she can’t get hold of Antoine because of her cell-phone issues, she finds herself taking the subway to the church the stranger asked about, where she sees him taking part in a funeral procession.

This is only the film’s setup; less than 30 minutes have passed by the time Alix finds the man, whose name turns out to be Douglas. While it’s always clear what Alix is thinking and going through, Bonnell and Devos have little need for explanatory dialogue; indeed, Alix either is on her own or keeps to herself before tentatively making contact with Douglas, at which point she’s asked to tag along to a bar by another memorial-service attendee, Rodolphe (Gilles Privat).

After its quietly observational but always fully comprehensible character-drama setup, the film eases into whispery romance as Alix and Douglas try to see where their initial spark takes them. A revelation about Alix’s unexpected new role in her relationship with Antoine further puts this unexpected encounter into perspective.

But the film also contains unexpected bursts of humor, starting with Rodolphe’s chuckle-inducing maladroitness, and culminating in a terrific scene that combines high drama and lowbrow comedy when Alix hits up her sister (Aurelia Petit) for cash. Though the lack of access to phones or funds often feels contrived in films, Bonnell uses it here to illustrate character — Alix is insouciant about money and not interested in technology — and, at the same time, to suggest that for one day, she’s a fish out of the water in her hometown, leading her to do things she wouldn’t normally do.

The tonal shifts are all handled smoothly; Devos can switch gears mid-scene like nobody’s business, but Bonnell also keeps things coherent with long takes that let humor, drama and introspection coexist side by side, just like in real life. The use of classical works on the soundtrack by composers such as Vivaldi tries, perhaps a tad too self-consciously, to infuse the film with gravitas, though they’re nicely offset by the different varieties of live music Alix and Douglas encounter as they amble through Paris on what turns out to be World Music Day.

Just a Sigh
Le Temps de l’aventure
(France)

Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles, Paris, April 10, 2013. (In Tribeca Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 105 MIN.

A Le Pacte release of a Rectangle Prods. presentation and production, in association with Scope Pictures, Element Pictures, France 3 Cinema, Alvy Distribution, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions, Le Pacte. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by Edouard Weil.

Directed, written by Jerome Bonnell. Camera (color, HD), Pascal Lagriffoul; editor, Julie Dupre; production designer, Anna Bachala; costume designer, Carole Gerard; sound (Dolby Digital), Laurent Benaim; assistant director, Gaillaume Huin; casting, Isabelle Ungaro.

Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Gabriel Byrne, Gilles Privat, Aurelia Petit, Laurent Capelluto, Denis Menichot.
(French, English dialogue)

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