Somewhere between the stylistic influences and themes of Lost in Translation and Hiroshima Mon Amour is Élise Girard’s Sidonie au Japon (Sidonie in Japan), where the outsider’s lens here comes in the form of the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, playing the titular Sidonie. An established author, Sidonie heads to Japan at the behest of her editor, Kenzo (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who wishes to introduce her to the local press and take her sightseeing around Kyoto in the bloom of spring.
As someone who responds to questions about her writing with ‘it helped me survive at the time’ and ‘writing is what happens when you have nothing left,’ the widowed Sidonie is still grappling with the grief of her husband’s death some years ago. Girard juxtaposes Sidonie’s pain — conveyed through sombre classical music, austere visual touches, and Huppert’s reserved performance — with some welcome humour as she encounters some unexpected Japanese customs. Girard artfully strikes the balance between poking light fun at the customs and ensuring that the humour comes just as much from Sidonie’s baffled reactions.
The early stages of the film carry an air of levity. Huppert and Ihara make for a wonderful pairing, bouncing off their characters’ cultural differences and dispositions with great ease and comfort. Girard also creates some striking visual contrasts using their respective physicalities, between the towering Ihara and the petite Huppert. Their sightseeing and casual conversations soon builds to something more intimate as they open up about their individual histories as survivors in past incidents that affected their loved ones, and in turn reconnect with a world they have long dissociated from by sharing their grief and internal life with one another. This is all handled in a rather light fashion, but the chemistry between the two actors makes this burgeoning romance affecting and impactful through this approach.
Sidonie in Japan takes a stylistic swing in having Sidonie also come to terms with her past in Japan where she encounters the ghost of her late husband Antoine (August Diehl). Antoine’s appearances in the film are a mixed bag. At times his intrusions are pleasantly poignant, well-timed entrances where Diehl’s idiosyncratic screen presence is utilised well, his expressive eyes and striking looks leaving an endearing impression. But at other times, Antoine’s presence feels at odds with the tone of the film. A certain pathos emerges from their interactions, but there are times where Girad might’ve been better served leaving Huppert to internalise the emotional weight of her husband’s loss through her performance alone.
As the film takes a turn for the more serious and loses most of its initial levity, Sidonie in Japan becomes a bit less distinct, going for heavier emotions in ways that feel a tad forced. On the whole, however, it stands as a lovely achievement — at once enjoyable and inspiring in the way its protagonist finds a new lease on life in the most unexpected of ways.