Jean-Luc Godard once said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Another version of that, at least based on the latest film by French writer-director Élise Girard, Sidonia in Japan (Sidonia in Japan), could be: All you need to make a movie is for Isabelle Huppert to wear a chic pantsuit and wander through many picturesque Japanese locations.
That’s a big part of what happens in this sweetly minimalist international romance/ghost story, in which Huppert plays a writer remembering her past lives on a book tour of Osaka, Kyoto, and a few other heady places on a week-long field trip. Along the way, she befriends—and perhaps more—her Japanese publisher, a man of few words who watches over her throughout the journey. Oh, and she also sees dead people.
Sidonia in Japan
It comes down to
A quiet moving story about grief and ghosts.
Girard’s third feature, which premieres in the Venice Days sidebar at the Lido, takes some cues from Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and is therefore perhaps too quiet and austere to be a major arthouse breakthrough. But it’s also a smart and thoughtful look at a woman finding new purpose later in life, which could make it particularly appealing to older viewers.
We first meet novelist Sidonie Perceval (Huppert) when she leaves her apartment in Paris and arrives at Charles de Gaulle airport to catch a flight to Japan. She is late and secretly hopes that the plane has already left. But the journey is delayed by over three hours, forcing Sidonie to take a journey she is reluctant to take, for reasons we eventually discover.
That airport scene and other early moments in Girard’s small-scale affair are marked by bits of cunning, offbeat comedy, especially once Sidonie arrives in Osaka and becomes a stranger in a strange land. Accompanied by Kenzo Mizoguchi (the laconic and moving Tsuyoshi Ihara), a lover of French literature who studied at the Sorbonne and runs his own small publishing house, she embarks on a short tour for the re-release of her first book, L’Ombre Portee (The worn shadow), which made her famous in the 1970s.
Strange things start happening to Sidonie while she’s jet-lagged in her hotel, and at first glance seem like even more cases of strange comedy. But in an early interview, she explains how her book—an “autofiction” similar to the literature of Margeurite Duras or Annie Ernaux—was written after her parents and brother died in a car accident. “Writing is what happens when you’ve got nothing left,” she tells a journalist in the casual, serious, deadpan manner that Huppert has now almost trademarked.
The past has indeed cast a long shadow over Sidonie’s life, so when she begins to see the ghost of her late husband (August Diehl) haunt the hotel, it feels like the recipe for a good horror movie. But the ghost isn’t even a little spooky, and… Sidonia in Japan certainly not The Sixth Sense. Girard, who co-wrote the script with Maude Ameline and the late Sophie Fillières, adds a light-hearted touch to the supernatural moments, undermining the gravity of what’s happening and turning Sidonie’s predicament into a story of self-discovery.
As the ghost keeps reappearing, Girard gradually focuses on the budding relationship between Sidonie and Kenzo, a man trapped in a long-failing marriage he doesn’t want to deal with, also beleaguered by past tragedies. It takes a lot of effort to get him to open up – although a few glasses of whiskey certainly help – and like Sidonie, Kenzo slowly comes out of his shell as they travel on to Nara and Kyoto, then on to the famous art island of Naoshima. get closer and closer during the week.
The aforementioned places are all tourist spots, and Girard’s view of Japan remains strictly and deliberately that of an outsider. Working with talented cameraman Céline Bozon (I want to talk about Duras), she frames Sidonie in a series of steady medium or wide shots, dwarfing her against lush green landscapes, hotel lobbies, and wood-panelled conference rooms. It’s a coolly detached style that undermines some of the film’s intimacy, and the fact that there’s hardly any music to get things moving takes patience on the part of the viewer.
In many arthouse films, this kind of reclusive aesthetic is usually synonymous with a bleak worldview (think Michael Haneke), so what’s so rewarding about Sidonia in Japan is how it ultimately takes us in a different, more hopeful direction. The ghost doesn’t so much haunt Huppert’s character as beckoning her to finally get past her many demons and maybe write another book. Sidonie may be a fish to water in a foreign country, but she could finally be home to herself.