First of all, Just a Sigh is the wrong title. It’s elegant and adequately conveys the delicate, dreamlike aesthetic director Jérôme Bonnell gives the film’s admirably weird romance. But the title in the film’s native France is Le Temps de L’Aventure, which roughly translates as The Time of the Adventure. And really, it’s the sense of adventure, as limited and sparse as it is, that gives Just a Sight a certain seductive element. The unlikely and weirdly direct connections made and explored are unlikely, at times even bordering on the preposterous, but are performed with such engaging and strange conviction that the film nearly overcomes the thinness of its conceit.
There’s also an inviting breeziness to this story of Alix (Emmanuelle Devos), a dead-broke actress on a quick break in Paris from a play in Calais, catching a disastrous audition before heading back to finish the show’s burdensome run. She’s on the train to the City of Lights, going over lines, when she first sees the handsome, essentially nameless professor who will become her guiding interest over the next few hours, played with rough charm and hungry desire by Gabriel Byrne. He asks her for directions, but someone interrupts their meet-cute, which isn’t rekindled until later that day when, reeling from her audition, Alix finds herself swept up in a local funeral that he happens to be attending, and for a woman he loved.
There’s a potent cuteness to the entire scenario, but Devos and Byrne make it sing, and Bonnell, far from matching the complexity of his subjects, gives the film an invitingly warm aesthetic, of nice hotel rooms, modern apartments, and Parisian streets. Alix is performing in search of escapism, to be someone else, and Bonnell, who also wrote the script, is smartly acute about the physical, sexual desires that can become a part of performance, as the first smoldering tryst between Alix and the man is invigoratingly captured. For a moment, the film feels like an enjoyable two-hander, but Bonnell reintroduces the harshness of the real world via Alix’s encounter with her wealthy sister (Aurélia Petit), wherein a plea for some extra cash is made and given with the caveat of immense condescension.
Just a Sigh feels less convincing in these sequences, as the lacerations of age and monetary stress leveled at Alix feel superfluous to the story, meant only to convey a slight sense of urgency and discomfort in the woman that remains unexplored. What’s worse, this pesky sense of drama crassly interrupts and weakens the lusty enchantment of Alix’s affair with Byrne’s nameless character. If these asides are Bonnell’s attempts to depict the struggles of a modern, middle-aged artist, they’re invariably toothless, in effect drawing attention to the poverty of the narrative and visual ideas at play.
When Bonnell allows his two magnificent leads to work at the sparse dialogue, he invokes a powerful, elemental sense of frank, sexual discussion and high-end flirtation, imbuing the relationships with a maturity that’s loathsomely rare in films today. But the writer-director’s cheap pretense to bluntly discuss matters of money, to say nothing of familial and artistic shame, is especially pronounced, as if to victimize the suffering of artists. This barely covert self-regard tethers the dreamiest elements, which also happen to be the wisest ones, of his lovely story.