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Tribeca Review: Featherweight 'Just A Sigh' A Wayward Romance That Immediately Fades From Memory

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by Gabe Toro
April 25, 2013 6:40 PM
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Some of us are floating in the water, waiting for that big wave that we can ride, one that will let us surf to another place where the water’s warmer, less choppy, and in some cases, soaked with less tourist piss (which may or may not be part of the metaphor). One of these people is Alix (Emmanuelle Devos) of “Just a Sigh,” a working actress still stuck in a holding pattern. Now in her forties, she clutches her cellphone, praying for a call from a sometime-boyfriend. What we learn of this man suggests whatever feelings that exist may not be mutual, and while Alix tells a girlfriend that she’s going to visit him, suggesting that she may try to establish their relationship face-to-face, the defensive way that Alix expresses herself suggests she’s tried this before.

With time off because of a power failure at the theater, Alix leaves for Paris to see her would-be beau and visit her mother. It’s on the train, however, where she sees Doug, a handsome traveler headed into the City Of Lights in a button-down with an open collar. His eyes are windows spattered with rain, and with the face of Gabriel Byrne, it’s impossible to avoid that this is one handsome devil just sitting by his lonesome. The clicking of the train wheels against the track provide the only soundtrack as these two lone riders exchange glances. Her face reads curiosity, and his reads sadness; he is drawn inward, but she might as well be leaning forward in her seat.

Arriving at Paris, she loses track of him, but soon takes stock of her life: she’s in Paris to see very judgmental family members and take another blind shot at a boyfriend, with minimal funds in her account. Might as well get on that wave right now and surf towards her handsome stranger. By roaming the city and ducking into a massive funeral, she’s actively trying to assimilate into a group of related people to relieve her loneliness. But lo and behold, there he is, mourning the death of a friend. Like a lovesick little girl, Alix feigns knowledge of the deceased as an attempt to pursue her quiet stranger. Devos’ eyes are wide-set and hypnotic: few actresses are as compelling while staring intently as she is.

Thanks to the assistance of a chatty funeral-goer who spills his emotions to Alix, she corners Doug and the two of them end up spending the day together. His sentiments, in English, reflect a caged heart, a reluctance to open up to a stranger in a strange land. Alix is a bit more dogged, suggesting to him he’s got magnetism inside of him that she could never possibly resist. There is a connection being made, and over the course of a couple of days, they connect and reconnect, her natural flakiness labeling her as someone who has no idea how to treat a godsend of a partner. Success isn’t enough for some people: sometimes the craving for chaos can genuinely feed the soul.

“Just a Sigh” works as a minor-key travelogue more than a romance – a criticism hailed at some contemporary films about male characters similar to Alix (transient screw-ups) is that they’re matched with unrealistically ideal pairings, in that they have little obvious shortcomings, and convenient draws. What’s intriguing about this setup is that Alix sees Doug not only as a plausible pairing, but also a life-raft: after all, she is broke, and hungry for a partner that treats her with respect. The problem is that he seems too much like an ideal salve for her wounds: he speaks of the end of his last relationship in a way that makes him seem mysterious and alluring, not tragic or flawed. And he seems to have no real thoughts about Alix beyond their sexual chemistry; the two of them collapsing into each other seems more like a genuine rebound for her, an expression of mourning and grief for him.

It feels as if the model for this film is something like “Before Sunrise,” with this portrait of two lovers in transit, crashing against each other. Unlike that film, which spawned two sequels, it feels as if the audience isn’t eager to revisit this dynamic anytime soon, although mostly that comes from this being Alix’s movie. Unfortunately, the trappings of her old life (the theater, the boyfriend, the pushy New Age sister) threaten to intrude on her excursion in a way a bad subplot vows to intrude upon a good story. Devos keeps her character’s unreliability and self-disappointment relatable, and falling backwards into a new lover is something that Devos captures beautifully with her uncertain facial expressions and hungry eyes. As a short, this material would be magnetic, but stretched to feature-length, it’s merely “Just a Sigh.” [B-]

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