Timewaves: Jérôme Bonnell’s Mermaid of Calais in Just a Sigh

By Diane Sippl

Life is apparently a happy, easy and lively thing up there in the shadow of the mountains and in the monotony of this seclusion. Then the suggestion is thrown up that this kind of life is a life of shadows. No initiative, no fight for liberty. Only longings and desires. This is how life is lived in the brief summer. And afterwards — into the darkness... (But) a man or woman who has reached the top desires the secrets of the future, a share in the life of the future and communication with distant planets. (Yet) everywhere limitation. From this comes a melancholy like a subdued song of mourning over the whole of human existence and all the activities of mankind. One bright summer day with a great darkness thereafter — that is all.

— Henrik Ibsen, Note to The Lady from the Sea


Many a play is like a painted backdrop, something to be looked at from the front. An Ibsen play is like a black forest, something you can enter, something you can walk about in. There you can lose yourself: you can lose yourself. And once inside, you find such wonderful glades, such beautiful, sunlit places. 

— Minnie Maddern Fiske, America’s first “Nora” in The Doll’s House


Just a Sigh opens as Alix is waiting in the wings to step onto the stage in The Lady from the Sea at a provincial theater in the port of Calais.  Jérôme Bonnell’s film is not exactly an adaptation of the play, but he catches the breath of Ibsen’s “bright summer day,” one day; it will end again in the dark theater the next night in Calais...  Or will it?

Alix makes a quick trip home to Paris between the two performances for a movie casting call.  It’s the summer solstice and also World Music Day on the streets of Paris, so the city is vibrant and teeming with life, but these aren’t the only reasons it’s the longest day of the year for Alix. 

Last night ended with moody ambivalence as she spoke on the phone with Antoine, her beau of eight years.  “If you could, would you do it again with me?” she asked.  He is affectionate, but far away.  We will never see him, but beginning in the morning, Alix calls him all day long.  And it isn’t easy because she flew out the door with a dead phone battery and no charger.  What’s more, the ATM won’t shell out because she’s overdrawn.

A day without a cell phone and a bank card can feel like life on another planet, especially for someone commuting between jobs and cities.  But it’s even worse.  The audition is bizarre. “Do it again, but be more moving this time,” the casting agent insists after a brilliant interpretation, so she plays the role again with a different edge, a more urgent impact.  It’s a bit strange in another way: the scene is remarkably parallel to her situation at-hand.  It’s a telephone monologue in which she’s locked herself out of her home and is pleading with her man to come to the rescue.  Not only that, but the audition is stunningly theatrical: in a single take, we see her perform both roles, back-to-back, with an astonishing change of tone.  As Alix, Emmanuelle Devos’ acting is arresting, begging the question of what such an emotional exercise does to an actor.  Repeatedly taking up a personae, a situation, a mood — can it be so easy to leave the “shadow world” and re-enter the “sunlight”?  Isn’t it difficult to find one’s self again, to return to authentic form, whatever that is?

It may be that real life is the shadow for Alix, for there’s another load she carries beside her acting roles and her domestic ambivalence — a secret she harbors — and maybe it takes more than the stage to escape that.  They say the theatre’s bigger than life, but for an actress, maybe nothing’s bigger — and more terrifying — than life itself.

Utterly in tune with her emotional states if not in possession of her logistical needs, Alix is at loose ends with herself, and maybe ripe for distraction.  But it appears to be more than that when she senses an intuitive attraction to a stranger on a train from Calais to Paris that morning.  We’ve seen it before, but it’s the way Bonnell lets it play that counts.  If the part of Alix was written explicitly for Emmanuelle Devos, the same holds for Gabriel Byrne as the stranger, and more precisely, as someone from across the sea.  The AutoStar, through a tunnel under the ocean, terrifies him.  But a curious purpose has brought this Engishman to Paris (it’s the reason he’d prefer to forget the French he once knew when he was teaching at the Sorbonne): the woman he fell for long ago died, because she was “a little too much in love with life,” and he’s there to bury her.  He’s not good at pain, he tells Alix, when we already begin to sense the funeral cortege as a mysterious counterpoint — almost a re-entry — to the passion for life that Alix stirs up in him and herself.

The irony of Just a Sigh is that while Jérôme Bonnell fills the screen with the clamor and color of, quite literally, “one bright summer day,” his perhaps deeper talent is to place us, from dawn to dusk, in the sea of the unconscious.  There a woman, Alix, swims in her longings and desires as she largely “loses herself” — from moment to moment bobbing to the surface of consciousness, but mostly testing the waters as a kind of psychological mermaid who ultimately washes up on her own shore taking her first breath as a fish out of water.  Her “sea” is largely the streets of Paris, where that morning her destiny arrives to lure her into self-discovery, aspiration, conviction, zest for living.  But of course all the while she flirts with that fate, it insists upon her free will.  Life is hers to choose, to make, and Alix’s hesitations, moves, retreats, and affirmations are a sight to behold.

The vibrant spaces of this city of love surround her as Bonnell opens the frame with the Latin and African beats of street parades and café dancing, and the long, ground-anchored horns of Alpine dwellers, and even the harmonies of a female “barbershop quartet”— the “Sea Girls”!  Yet these celebrations are interspersed with off-screen orchestral and choral interludes of Vivaldi, Mozart, and Verdi, as if from the heavens above.  Remote forces encroach upon Alix (she says she doesn’t believe in God but “in gods — they’re all over”) in tension with relentless interruptions of the immediate (bystanders are forever intruding upon her attempts at intimacy with her “stranger”). A cacophony of tones and styles?  Hardly.  Rather they collide in amazingly fresh and witty ways to deliver a special character point of view as it shifts in real time like clouds, moods, or looks in the mirror.

Such a delicate task, then, for pursuing this new kind of “adventure” already veiled in romance.  Indeed, the original name of the film is Le temp de l’aventure, the latter word in French suggesting a love affair, but the beginning of the title sets the emotional register as one of time.  The clock is ticking for Alix, on more levels than one.

In a letter at the time of writing The Lady from the Sea, Henrik Ibsen reflected,

“We ought to avail ourselves to the sea, building floating cities on it so that we can move southward or northward according to the time of year.  …Some such happy state will come one day, though we shall not live to see it.” 

Yet he did live to create, from local stories in 1888, a world in which a sailor, thought drowned, returned “home” years later to his first love, in which a Norwegian wife could be so compelled by the “troll-craft” in a stranger’s eyes that she could leave her husband and children for him, and in which (like Ibsen’s own mother-in-law in Jutland) a girl would run away to Norway from a disastrous love but continue to bathe in the sea every day. 

In so doing, this “Father of Modern Drama,” an angst-ridden social crusader, departed from the suffocating confinement within the walls of the bourgeois home to the open greenways of gardens and parks where the characters walk and talk with the arrival of ships from afar and tourists making merry in the fjords.  The air is filled with the music of popular singing and band concerts, and the continually shifting scene of fishing rods and easels, of sun parasols and floral dresses under a changing sky, anticipates Chekhov.  In French productions, the Impressionist Vuillard was hired as the scenic artist, employing the mode of Monet and Renoir.  But beneath all this flows the undercurrent of mystery as a man who remains ambiguously named and even less known, free from the social responsibilities of the land, holds in tow the unconscious fascination of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who is acclimatized only to the ebb and flow of the tides.  She might as well have been hypnotized by the young Sigmund Freud, given her struggle between the psychic states of her libido and super-ego.  And with that pendulum Ibsen injected a mythic play between the forces of Apollo and Dionysius, land and sea, sun and shadow, even as each division begins to dissolve at its meeting point.  Water and air do wonders.

The marvel of The Lady form the Sea is its fluidity, the breathe-ability the play brings to conventional bonds, the mutability of the concept of inconclusiveness or irresolution — “half-heartedness” (in Norwegian, halvhed) — into the notion of balance or equilibrium, self-willed acceptance. Ibsen’s protagonist Ellida searches the depths of her psyche as if her unconscious state is boundless as the sea.  Bonnell’s Alix, headed for the evening train back to Callais, learns the Stranger’s name is Doug (call it “dug”).  How can she go on stage that night, he wonders.  “I have a good cervelet,” she tells him.  And we have seen its tug and sway between impulses of fear and pleasure as Alix wavered from moment to moment, phone booth to phone booth, suspending her commitments to boyfriend, lover, and job alike, and to one more choice, the crux of the film and the theme that complements the funeral cortege in which she first approached the Stranger. 

Pure freedom, with neither plan nor purpose, attractive yet terrifying, put one woman in her grave.  Alix has already rejected that woman’s choice, but now she faces the free choice of a new life, and she must answer for more than herself.  And to the man from across the sea — who has asked, “Why did you follow me?” — she says, “Because you looked sad.  Because I wanted to.  I didn’t follow you.  I went and found you.  It’s very different.” 

Jérôme Bonnell, Writer-Director of Just a Sigh


Just a Sigh

Director: Jérôme Bonnell; Producer: Edouard Weil; Screenplay: Jérôme Bonnell; Cinematographer: Pascal Lagriffoul - AFC; Editor: Julie Dupré; Sound: Laurent Benaïm; Production Design: Anna Bachala; Costumes: Carole Gérard.

Cast:  Emmanuelle Devos, Gabriel Byrne, Gilles Privat, Aurélia Petit, Laurent Capelluto.

Color, HD, 105 min.  In French and English with English subtitles.


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