Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Director: Jérôme Bonnell
Screenplay: Jérôme Bonnell
Runtime: 104 minutes
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Gabriel Byrne, Gilles Privat, Aurélia Petit
Trailer: “Why did you come here today?” (warning: you may ask yourself the same)
Viewed as part of the Alliance Française Film Festival, 2014.
Plot: The deflating Just a Sigh follows struggling actress Alix as she runs from an out-of-town performance to audition for film; along the way meeting a half-asleep Doug, whom she proceeds to stalk in between a series of disastrous personal encounters. The film proceeds to play out a will-they-won’t-they dynamic in a variety of Paris settings; made absolutely redundant by the fact that this is a film starring Emmanuelle Devos and Gabriel Byrne. But how far will they go? And will you still care by the end?
Review: I should have noted the warning bells going in, well before I bought the ticket. To be fair, they gave me plenty of opportunities:
a) A title so on the nose that you can already fill in the audience members’ putdowns;
b) A poster which includes a background shot of the Eiffel tower, announcing “But it’s French! Don’t you want to see something French?”;
c) A male lead who lends his bankable name to projects, but catches most of his shut-eye during filming; and,
d) A writer-director delivering an emotionally loaded, everyday slice of life.
So I have only myself to blame.
However, the fundamental problem here is the concept of the “vignette film” in modern cinema. I’d define this (perhaps wrongly, sorry) as a film which has its origins in a Dadaist form of anti-art – where the everyday is presented as the exceptional, and demands attention for the mundane details that would otherwise escape the light of the audience’s gaze. Frequently, the motivation for this statement is political – for example, in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles which documents the routine actions of its titular character over 201 minutes to drive home the hard consequences of the soft social oppression which the character endures. Other vignettes attempt to portray an emotionally significant story which just happens to play out over a short period of time, in as realistic a manner as possible. If you’re ideologically inclined, you might describe the first as frequently proletarian and the second as frequently bourgeois in their ambitions; but either way, it does not fundamentally matter. What does is that both aspire to a form of truthfulness through the authenticity and commitment of their portrayals. Both document an existential response to a form of struggle; where that struggle is noteworthy not in being exceptional, but in being exemplary. That is the only way the vignette film can share its sincerity with its audience, and succeed.
But an existential response is not necessarily just an emotional response; and the selection of the everyday doesn’t automatically pass for the significant. Here we have the core problem with Bonnell’s Just a Sigh – overloading a narrative with ordinary events and emotional pauses does not inevitably generate the sincere link with an audience that a film like this needs to succeed. On the contrary; the events of the film come across as a pointless waste of our time, and the characterisations volatile to an annoying degree. Just a Sigh is like that friend you dread spending time with, because even arranging to go for a coffee always turns into a drama.
And there is much drama surrounding coffee in this film; indeed, the only score on which the film succeeds is in establishing real tension and sympathy from Alix’s financial situation. She finds herself with nothing in her bank account, and barely enough money to pay for a taxi – at one point scrounging around in the bottom of her bag to pay for a coffee pressed on her. This forces her into even more embarrassing confrontations, circumscribes her movements, and threatens to overshadow the strange desire for Doug she is pursuing. The sketch of the struggling actress, student, casual worker seems the most sincere and well conveyed element of the film; and the hateful feeling of doing battle with money of all things, when there is so much more at stake, comes across as genuine and moving.
Nothing else does, though. From the supposedly loaded glances across the train carriage as Doug and Alix meet (which due to the editing, acting, direction come across as two people trying to quietly figure out where that smell is coming from) to the question of whether they will part, finally, in the final minutes (don’t care, didn’t care for most of the runtime) the other elements slump limply to the ground. Many key beats feel sandwiched in – like a visit to a difficult sister, and a funeral – just to make sure the audience gets the full range of weighty emotional issues the characters have packed in their luggage.
Ultimately, for the vignette film to really work it has to impart something startlingly original and new, while being deceptively wrapped in the clothes of the ordinary. In Just a Sigh, sadly, the wrappings aren’t deceptive. It is what it says on the packet (see what I mean about the title?). I look forward to seeing Emanuelle Devos in many more films (indeed, her performance in Violette is spectacular, almost balancing out this film and Domestic Life); but Gabriel Byrne really should wake up and call it a day. Soon those middle-aged ladies are going to stop turning up to the cinema.
Rating: One and a half cups.
These bad reviews are really terrible for business: