Just A Sigh opens with a sumptuous long take from an upstairs dressing room down to a stage. It follows a woman as she ends a phone call, touches up her costume, and positions herself in the wings, with the cut to a title card coming just before she finds her light. Viewers finally see her face, made up, just as she emerges from the darkness. This is a woman waiting for a nudge. A big day out that mixes madcap humor and unexpected passion is just the thing to push her forward.
Even in a utopia like France, where arts funding pours from the sky with diluvial abandon, it isn’t easy being a theater actor. The first third of Jérôme Bonnell’s Just A Sigh, a movie chopped into more noticeable acts than most, makes this clear. Alix (Emmanuelle Devos), a fortysomething actress with a road company in Calais, hustles off to Paris for a film audition on her day off. Her bank account is tapped out, phones are unreliable, her boyfriend isn’t being helpful, and her casting director/scene partner is half-asleep. (“Be more moving” is his only note.)
After half an hour of this ennui, her thoughts return to a man she saw on her trip to Paris: winsome Englishman Doug (Gabriel Byrne), who asked directions to a church. Popping by that church later, she realizes he’s come to Paris for a funeral. The momentum of the assembled mourners sends Alix to a tavern, and gravity further draws her to Doug, whose solo trips for an outdoor smoke may or may not be an invitation for her to approach. Their conversation quickly turns deep, and faster than anyone can sing “La Marseillaise,” they’re up in his hotel room. But their near-anonymous lovemaking is miles from the fury of the opening to Last Tango In Paris. Bonnell shoots these scenes chastely, focusing on faces and held breath, as stately classical music plays on the soundtrack.
There’s a world-weariness to these scenes, and the seriousness of the sighs and solemn strings do invoke a bit of sadness. Unfortunately, Alix is a purposely wily character (she is, after all, an actress slipping into someone else’s story for the day), and Doug’s whole appeal is his mystery. Bonnell’s decision to shoot the ardor discreetly does him no favors. The connection that these two are allegedly making must be taken on faith. Little is shown or spoken to sell it. A lazy afternoon with the curtains drawn is no doubt a big deal to these people, but as a movie, it’s just a snooze.
The film’s final act unexpectedly switches to light comedy as Alix leaves the sanctuary of the hotel room to deal with the hassle of life outside. Bonnell, desperate to propel the story forward, has her running around Paris trying to find just a few Euro to pay her bar tab. An eventual revelation concerning her boyfriend and an upcoming decision makes for the closest thing Just A Sigh has to a big reveal.
French cinema has built many a masterpiece on the foundation of what may, on the surface, just seem like women wandering around. Sadly, Just A Sigh is no Cleo From 5 To 7 or The Green Ray. Viewers who fetishize French film may get a kick out of chatter in which a man responds to “You seem elsewhere” with “I was thinking of Pascal,” but Just A Sigh has put meanderings ahead of its focus. With the exception of the opening shot, it doesn’t have much visual kick, and the decision to play things quietly undercuts what wants to be a fascinating inspection of distant characters. Put bluntly, there’s nothing filling in for the film’s intentional narrative space. Alix’s decision to get back on her train ought to be a Brief Encounter-esque tearjerker, but it comes across as just some commuting.