Jessica Campbell looks back at Under the Tuscan Sun to find that the film, unlike a fine chianti, does not retain its full-bodied flavor with age.
If you remodel it, they will come.
I first saw this movie ten years ago on a pretty awkward date with the first person to show real interest in me. He and I weren’t terribly wise in the ways of the world. For one thing, I distinctly remember that while we looked at the snapshot movie synopses and reviews in the newspaper trying to decide what to go see, the word “chianti” came up in the entry for this movie and neither of us knew how to pronounce it. We mutually guessed sh-ianti. (Obviously, this ignorance of the ways of wine characterized me long before I either went to France or became a grad student.)
There is really nothing remarkable about this movie. That’s pretty much what I thought at the time, and I think it a little more firmly now. I don’t think I’ve seen it in the intervening ten years. My impression is that it’s pretty much the same movie as Eat, Pray, Love, although I didn’t see that one (please correct me in a comment if I’m wrong!). In fact, it’s pretty much the same as a lot of stories. It’s based on a memoir of the same title by Frances Mayes; I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to the movie’s relationship to its source material. (If you can, dear Reader, please do. I resisted the Type A temptation to read the book as extra homework for this review.) Novelist Frances (Diane Lane) is dumped by a husband who turns out to be sleeping with a younger woman. She is persuaded to take a solo trip to Tuscany by her best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh, also known as Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy) and Patti’s partner, Grace (Kate Walsh, also known as Addison on Grey’s Anatomy – see what happened there?). Although she is reluctant to go at all, things change when she arrives in Tuscany: she impulsively buys a graceful but crumbling villa. With some help from the real estate agent, Mr. Martini (Vincent Riotta) she lines up a group of Polish immigrants to help her remodel and update the house.One of them is a young man named Pawel (Pawel Szajda) who finds himself in a romance with an Italian girl that rouses disapproval from her parents. In between struggles with carpentry and plumbing, Frances wanders into town from time to time and strikes up something of a friendship with a daring, ostentatious older woman named Katherine (Lindsay Duncan). Katherine claims to have known Fellini (yes, Fellini the director) and frequently quotes various pearls of wisdom he apparently dropped in her path. She says things like “Terrible idea – don’t you just love those?” Mostly, she believes that Frances needs to get laid. (File this one away for later: “Ladybugs” ends up being a euphemism for sex.) Lo! and behold, Frances takes the bus to Rome one day, only to find a tall, dark Italian named Marcello (Raoul Bova) thrown into her path. They spend the day together, ending up on the seashore, which obligingly provides appropriate atmospheric details: waves roll in and out, the glowing sun slips beneath the horizon, and a shooting star celebrates their first kiss. We see just enough of the subsequent sex to conclude that it has gone very well indeed.
Marcello seems genuinely interested in seeing Frances again, but logistics prove insurmountable. Meanwhile, Patti, the now very pregnant best friend, turns up at Frances’s increasingly picturesque doorstep. She turns out to have suffered a blow rather like Frances’s: her partner has left her, unwilling to mother the baby after all. Patti (of undefined profession) moves into the villa and has the baby. Meanwhile, Frances helps young Pole Pawel convinces his beloved’s parents that he is not a loser after all, despite being an immigrant and having “no family.” Confession: I legitimately teared up when Frances rejoined, “That’s not true. He has me. I am his family.” Cut to a church wedding, followed by a well-attended reception at none other than Frances’s fully remodeled Tuscan villa. Everyone seems quite happy, Frances most of all; Mr. Martini points out that she has gotten what she once told him she wanted: a wedding at this house. Yes, she realizes, she doeshave what she wants – something of a family, what with her close Italian and Polish friends and Patti and the baby. But don’t roll the credits quite yet: even as Frances is sitting down for a moment to reflect on Martini’s words, a pair of masculine legs appears. They belong to a man (Dan Sutcliffe, better known as Christopher, Rory’s father, from Gilmore Girls, or, as my mother will never be cured of calling it, The Gilmore Girls), who announces that Frances had negatively reviewed a novel of his, but so constructively that it had helped him to do better next time, and he happened to be in Italy, so he thought he’d stop by. Oh, and I forgot this important part: he gets her attention in the first place by plucking a ladybug off of her arm (I told you to remember the ladybugs.). Soon they might be having sex. Get it? Get it? Anyway, the wedding reception goes on, and pretty soon we’ve cut to what looks like Christmas dinner at Frances’s villa, where Frances serves up a lot of food, Dan Sutcliffe appears and kisses her, and all the guests look very happy.
Although I became increasingly sarcastic in that summary, I definitely grant that the central story of Under the Tuscan Sun is one that deserves to be told. There is life after divorce. You can still have truly new experiences and learn new things about yourself well over the age of thirty. These are important things for people, particularly women, to be reminded of, and there were somewhat fewer other reminders in 2003. I haven’t really experienced anything in the past decade that gives me a fundamentally different attitude to Frances’s situation. I have, however, also experienced the therapeutic properties of spending a substantial amount of time far, far away after a personal crisis. For me, a mere half year in Europe was a sufficiently striking and new experience to push some things I hadn’t gotten over back into the shadows. There’s something comforting about living someplace so old. Staring up at a church that has witnessed hundreds of years’ worth of the prayers of distressed or thankful human beings has a way of throwing your own life into perspective.
Also, Europe is beautiful, and the food and wine are amazing. My favorite parts of this movie are the moments when that backdrop dominates. The house Frances buys is absolutely lovely. The Tuscan hills are breathtaking. The food she cooks looks delectable. I mean, this is no I Am Love (a superb movie also featuring such elements as food, sex, and Italy – but with Tilda Swinton, and better writing and directing and – seriously, just see it NOW), but you get enough of the sensuous details to wish you were headed to Tuscany yourself. (Remind me again why I’m not booking a flight?)
But that’s about it. This movie is exactly what you think it will be. The supporting characters are pleasant but shallowly drawn. Sandra Oh is sometimes pretty funny as best friend Patti. I do give writer/director Audrey Wells significant props for making Patti a lesbian without feeling the need to make that a major plot point or presenting her as excessively unkempt or butch, unfortunately the usual signals. We didn’t see that as much then (and if we had, I might not have been on that particular date in the first place…but that’s beside the point). Patti, like Frances, loses her partner during the movie, and this parallel loss brings the friends closer together. “Life is strange,” Patti says to Frances as they stand together without their partners, in the middle of Tuscany.
And it is! Stranger, in fact, than this movie ultimately acknowledges. The most evocative moment, in my opinion, is realtor Mr. Martini’s parable to a distraught Frances about midway through the film: once upon a time, he says, in a very steep section of the Alps between Austria and Italy, they laid train tracks before there was a train powerful enough to make the trip. “They built it,” he says, “because they knew someday the train would come.” (I pause here for your brain to go to Field of Dreams. Great.) This, of course, is the movie in microcosm, and it’s a good kernel – one that’s much more striking for me now that I’m ten years older and have had that many more occasions for feeling I’d lost faith in something I’d worked and waited for. Frances says to Martini that she wishes she still had faith but can’t seem to muster it. The point I think the movie would like to make (note the conditional tense – I’ll come back to this) is that you never know what’s going to happen in life, what changes will occur both around you and inside you. So all you can do is keep faith, build your train tracks – or remodel your Tuscan villa – anyway.
My main problem with this movie is the ending, and I will explain it by bringing in a totally unrelated movie, Charlie Wilson’s War. In that movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Gust Avrakotos, tells a story:
There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse, and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful. The boy got a horse.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up. And everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”
These things are a parable, ladies and gentlemen. The point of Gust’s story is that you never know how things will play out. A terrible event might actually have positive consequences down the road, and vice versa. I could not agree with this attitude to the world more, and God knows the last ten years have only given me more reasons to give up on predicting outcomes and just go about my business. Build my train tracks through the Alps, as it were. Under the Tuscan Sun seems to want to be a movie that champions the building for its own sake – or the “realizing I already had someone to cook for,” as Frances says with respect to her Polish builders; actually looking around you and seeing what you have, even if it isn’t normal or conventional or perfect.
And in a way, that’s what going off to Tuscany is supposed to teach her: that the simple way you expect your life to turn out, and the simple measures of success or failure, don’t need to be the only way to look at things. You never know what’s going to happen, but that’s okay. You can reshape your life in the moment.
But they chicken out, because they’re making a chick flick and therefore feel the need for a conventional happy ending. I remember being annoyed about this even as a sixteen-year-old girl on a date, too. It’s a genre dilemma. The women going to see this movie might be happy because they want the perfect romance-novel happy ending, or they might feel betrayed because for a while it looked like this would be a movie that validated other kinds of happiness. I’m a little torn, because I do understand the value of dramatizing the payoff (which is why I like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows epilogue). But if they have to introduce The Guy, I wish they’d just left it at the meet cute. We don’t have to see that they’re spending Christmas together. Frances is feeling better, and she’s still “got it”, and men still find her attractive. We get it. We have imaginations. That’s enough.
Overall, I’m harder on Under the Tuscan Sun ten years later because I now have ten years’ worth of better movies under my belt to compare it to. This includes other work from its writer and director, Audrey Wells. Under the Tuscan Sun is less interesting than Guinevere (which she wrote and directed in 1999) and less funny than The Truth About Cats and Dogs (which she wrote in 1996). While all three of these movies are about women who start out feeling adrift, learn things about themselves, and wind up more empowered than they were at the beginning, Frances progresses the least. As we say in fairy-tale studies, hers is a restoration story, not a rise story; she falls from and then regains the position of Woman in a Committed Relationship. Yeah, she’s better off now because she’s gone off on her own and everything, sure. But still. Guinevere and The Truth About Cats and Dogs are rise stories: they feature women (younger women, to be fair, which is a contributing factor) who start off feeling like they have serious liabilities but end up in much better positions than they started from. At the end of Guinevere, we do not even know whether heroine Harper is in a relationship, but we know she’s fine. Neither of these movies is perfect (everyone who has complained about Cats and Dogs’s presentation of Janeane Garofalo as “the ugly girl” is of course COMPLETELY in the right; see 1945’s The Enchanted Cottage for another laughable example of Hollywood’s idea of “ugly”), but they have both aged better than Under the Tuscan Sun.
Verdict: if it’s Friday night, you’re bushwhacked, and you don’t want to have to think, go ahead and pop it in the DVD player. But if you’re craving a taste of Italy, watch I Am Loveinstead – and then let’s chat about it.
Holy cow, Frances’s divorce lawyer is George Bluth (i.e. Jeffrey Tambor). That can’t be good.
Holy cow, the other friend is Addison from Grey’s Anatomy. Wait, I mean the lesbian lover. How did I forget that the two friends are lesbians? Grey’s incest.
Fate! Tour bus stopped by a flock of sheep right outside the beautiful house whose picture Frances was looking at in the real estate office window in town. Nice pastoral touch.
Oh, the house is beautiful. There was a reason the Romantic poets were obsessed with ruins. And Italy.
The flying washing machine in the lightning storm is a little much. So is the shooting star during the Marcello-kissing episode.
Remodeling difficulties: the house has to fall apart before they can rebuild it. Yep, just like Frances.
Katherine’s sort of a fairy godmother / donor figure. You can tell because she says momentous things and has striking accessories.
I’d forgotten how much of the movie was set around remodeling the house. See griping from before about how it really seems to want to be about the process of building, not just the result.
The flag-throwing ceremony is really nice. The scenes that foreground the Tuscan setting are the ones that I find myself enjoying the most.
Mmm, Frances’s white dress is lovely. So are the crazy dresses and hats for Katherine. Props, costume designer (according to IMDb, this is Nicoletta Ercole, responsible for many movies’ costumes over the past 35 years).
“I’m in Italy – I can hire the muscular descendants of Roman gods to do the heavy lifting.” – Frances
“Well, hats make me happy. And ice cream.” – Katherine
“You have to live spherically – in many directions. Never lose your childish enthusiasm – and things will come your way.” – Katherine supposedly quoting Fellini. The Internet would suggest that Fellini actually said this.
A Particularly Unfortunate Quotation
[As the plumbing is in disarray, causing Patti and Frances to notice that the toilet water is steaming] Patti: “Well, it’s not good, unless you want to give your ass a facial.” Frances: “That’s a contradiction in terms.” Patti: “I guess it’d be more of an ass-cial.”