Thursday, January 22, 2009

Under the Tuscan Sun

As a non-fiction literary sub-genre, the moderately-successful-writer-buys-old-house-in-picturesque-European-village-befriends-the-locals-and-writes-bestseller-about-it is a fairly narrow field. Three titles pretty much define it: ‘A Year in Provençe’ by Peter Mayles, ‘A Valley in Italy’ by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ by Frances Mayes.

There have been two attempts at capturing Mayles’ summery prose onscreen: the ill-advised BBC adaptation with John Thaw, and Ridley Scott’s ‘A Good Year’ starring Russell Crowe. I mean, come on – Russell Crowe as a fictionalised Peter Mayle! Lounging around in a vineyard! (“At my command … uncork another bottle.”)

St Aubin de Teran’s book, perhaps the most elegant literary work of the three, has yet to be subjected to the big screen treatment.

‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ was filmed in 2003, writer-director Audrey Wells’ only film to date apart from 1999’s ‘Guinevere’, a decent enough rites-of-passage movie starring Sarah Polley. ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ is middlebrow, middle-of-the-road, inoffensive and somewhat pedestrian in its direction.

It would be so easy to criticise this movie. You could call it a chick flick (if you wanted to be really cruel, you could call it a middle-aged chick flick). You could call it chocolate box film-making (cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson’s camera positively bathes in the glorious scenery). You could accuse it of revelling in cliché (if you don’t see the last half dozen scenes coming like the QEII on a duckpond, you’re clinically dead). You could write off the last half hour as an excess of saccharine (seriously: the final reel isn’t just sugar-coated, it’s wound in clayfloss, dipped in whipped cream and drizzled with melted chocolate).

But I’ve got to admit … and it’s not just because of Diane Lane’s presence … I have a soft spot for ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. And with my recent movie-viewing including ‘Che – Part One’, ‘Hell Drivers’ and ‘Emperor of the North’ – dark, intense films – ‘UTTS’ provides a pleasant change of pace: light-heartedness, sweeping sunny vistas, the laughter of friends, the flowing of wine and the transient joie de vivre of a May-to-September romance.

Having said that, the romantic subplot is probably the worst aspect of Wells’ fictionalisation of Mayes’ memoir, giving the film its clumsiest scenes and its single most awkward visual image.

On the whole, though, watching 'UTTS' it is like sinking into a bubble bath or getting that slight fuzzy feeling from your second or third glass of wine (or your second or third bottle, depending on your personal tolerance levels). It clears the palate before you reach for, say, ‘Unforgiven’ or ‘Deep Red’.

And to give the film its dues, it owns up to its clichés. My favourite scene comes fairly early on. Novelist Frances (Lane) has divorced her cheating bastard of a husband and moved into a gloomy apartment (“you’re a writer?” the realtor says; “you can help the others [tenants] write their suicide notes”); her best friend Patti (Sandra Oh) endeavours to cheer her up by treating her to a package tour of Tuscany. One of her fellow tourists, stumped at what to write on an obligatory postcard to his mother, calls upon Frances’ literary talents. She glances around the piazza, sees a gaggle of nuns eating ice cream, an expatriate British woman chatting with the locals, a small car weaving non-too-discreetly through a throng of pedestrians, a couple of bronzed and oleaginous types checking out women, people buying food and two small boys positively drooling over a gleaming red Ferrari. “It’s market day in Cortona,” she writes; “the piazza is an ongoing party and everyone is invited. Clichés converge at this navel of the world. You almost want to laugh, but you can’t help feeling these Italians know more about having fun than we do.”

It’s a nice moment, slightly self-deprecating. Much of the first half works on this level: a patchwork quilt of gently played-out scenes, such incident as there is deriving from character and observation without the need to force anything resembling a narrative arc on the proceedings … until, that is, the last forty minutes or so. Still, it’s just about forgivable. Wells might be a pedestrian film-maker, but her cast are perfect: Diane Lane transcends the material time after time, Sandra Oh makes an excellent foil and Lindsay Duncan is memorable as the expatriate British actress still living in a fantasy world of Rome à la Fellini. There’s a nod to ‘La Dolce Vita’ that could easily have been cringingly embarrassing, but comes off as curiously poignant.

My advice: crack a good bottle of Italian wine as the movie starts, enjoy a terrific first half with its celebration of female unity, then drink yourself into a pleasant stupor wherein the convergence of clichés no longer detract from the sheer gorgeousness of the Tuscan locations … and of the delectable Ms Lane.

Posted to coincide with Diane Lane’s 44th birthday. Up tomorrow on the Diane-fest: ‘The Big Town’.

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