Written by Frances Mayes and Audrey Wells
Directed by Audrey Wells
I generally hate movies which depict the be-all-to-end-all of a woman’s life as finding “a good man” to settle down with. It just seems to me that I want my daughters to be happy, with or without a partner in their lives, and showing marriage and an idyllic home as the ultimate goal to strive for in their lives sells them short.
With that prejudice, I watched the beautifully filmed Under the Tuscan Sun. Diane Lane stars as Frances Mayes, a woman who learns her husband has been having an affair at a time in her life when everything seemed to be perfect. The fallout of this event is profound and devastating on her. If the depiction of the divorce laws in California is true here, than something should be changed as he’s able to then sue her for alimony and the house she bought in which to install his now-pregnant girlfriend. I just have a hard time believing it would happen that way.
Frances is miserable and wallowing in her grief. To cheer her up, her best friends – a lesbian couple – treat her to a trip to Tuscany. It had been their trip, but since Patti (Sandra Oh) is pregnant, they choose not to fly at this time. So off Frances goes on a gay tour through Tuscany, with no pressure to “meet someone”. However, she soon abandons the tour on a whim to buy a run-down villa near the town of Cortona and promptly sets out to restore it. The remodeling of the house is symbolic for the renovating of her life.
But the theme running through this is her frustration at being alone and at not having a man by her side. She meets many interesting characters around the town, including a dazzling actress (Lindsay Duncan), as well as the real estate agent who sells her the house, Martini (Vincent Riotta) and tries to help her adjust to her new life. When she is invited to a dinner at his house, she misinterprets the “normal” flirtiness that Martini insists is present in Italian society of a fellow guest who turns out to be married. This gives her an air of desperation that never seems to leave until she meets Marcello (Raoul Bova), who seems to be than man of her dreams. After one weekend together, they seem to keep missing each other, yet Frances seems to just take comfort in being able to say she has a man in her life, whether the man truly is in her life or not.
When her now very-pregnant friend Patti arrives at the villa an announces that she is now also a single woman. This gives the film a bit of a comic edge and it’s a nice bit of relief to the desperation that has seemed to be emanating from Frances up until this point, but it also causes Marcello to walk out of her life. There’s a message here girls – stay utterly devoted to your hunk of burning love and at his beck-and-call or he’ll find someone else.
What saves this film from being absolutely terrible is two things. The first is the beautiful countryside of Tuscany. From seemingly endless fields of sunflowers to the seaside town of Positano where Marcello lives, the cinematography is so beautiful I could see people logging onto Expedia to book trips here immediately after viewing the film. It should do wonders for the tourist industry here. Geoffrey Simpson is to be commended, especially after I learned while watching some of the Special Features that this was filmed during one of the rainiest seasons in Tuscany. The lighting during the film was very noticeable to me as well as it changed the look of the film depending on the mood, becomes warmer as the film goes on. When Frances is first getting divorced and down on her luck the lighting comes off quite dark. By the time she’s in Tuscany it brightens a great deal, then darkens again when things don’t seem to be going so great.
The other thing that saves this film is the casting of Diane Lane as Frances. Even at her most desperate, I found Frances to be a fun character and felt myself rooting for her. Lane is beautiful to look at, and comfortable in the role. Her take on Frances seems to be that she’s a woman who does have it all, she just doesn’t know it yet. This works well for most of the film, as she is confident when she “has a man in her life” and miserable and lost when she doesn’t. It’s a journey Frances must take and realize on her own – no one else can do it for her.
There’s a sub-story here involving one of the young Polish immigrant workers on Frances’ villa who is in love with a young girl from the town. It’s a sweet story, meant to contrast the cynical look at life and love that Frances has. Unfortunately, it feels like it’s there for just that reason – as Frances must counter the objection of the girl’s father with her own arguments for love at the height of her own despair.
The ending is a let-down, because although it appears that Frances does finally come to the realization that she does “have it all” without having a man in her life, suddenly the man of her dreams walks into her life. I would have liked it more if I was left wondering if she ever did find anyone with whom to share her life, or if she was still a happy single person in her villa in Tuscany.
The Bonus Features on the DVD are nice. There’s Tuscany 101 which talks about the film in general and some specifics on shooting the film and various locations.
The Deleted Scenes are “The Singing Contractor”, “Discovering the Fresco”, “Clapper Montage”. The Fresco Scene is nice as she uncovers a fresco on her wall painted over by the previous owner.
Audio Commentary with Director and Screenwriter Audrey Wells. She read the actual book this was based on while she was working on the story of a woman bouncing back from the devastation of a divorce, so she combined the two. To this end, people who read the original novel by the real Frances Mayes may be disappointed that the film has taken on a life completely outside of what it originally was.
One good thing about Disney/Touchstone DVDs is that they let you skip the coming attractions at the beginning of the disc by simply pressing “Menu”. They are available off of the Bonus Menu: Hidalgo, My Boss’s Daughter, Calendar Girls, and Soapnet.
I can’t say I disliked the film, or at least not as much as I would have normally disliked a film like this. That was due to the beautiful setting as well as Diane Lane. I would recommend seeing the film at least once, although I personally don’t see the need to ever see the film again.