‘Just a Sigh’ is romance done right

Emmanuelle Devos, as Alix. Photo by Céline Nieszawer.
Emmanuelle Devos, as Alix. Photo by Céline Nieszawer.

BY SAM SPOKONY  | Now this is romance. The knowing glances, the swells and falls, the awkward moments, the utter silence. It’s always nice to experience a piece of fiction in which the depth of emotion is really shown rather than told, and “Just a Sigh” follows that old mantra of narrative in all the right ways. Jérôme Bonnell puts it all out there, displaying — with supreme confidence  — an invigorating ability to navigate the folds of both tense social interaction and quiet introspection, while never losing his sense of humor and sheer imaginative spark.

During a break from a theatre performance in Calais, 43-year-old French actress Alix (played by Emmanuelle Devos) is on her way back to her home in Paris to relax and spend some time with her boyfriend. But while riding the train into the city, a somewhat older British man (Gabriel Byrne) sitting in a nearby seat catches her eye. She catches his eye. It’s cute. And so on. They speak briefly, but there’s an interruption, and the connection is lost…for the moment.

From this point, it could have devolved into pure cheese, but it didn’t. Instead, it’s where (all innuendo aside) Bonnell really gets it in.

It turns out that this handsome, nameless man is on his way to a church. But when Alix suddenly has an impulse to follow him, she soon realizes that Mr. Mysterious isn’t there for fun. He’s there for the funeral of a dear colleague (he’s a literature professor), and one for whom he had strong (yet unconsummated) romantic feelings.

This is where it gets interesting. As Alix realizes that her own boyfriend is nowhere to be found (and, better yet, that she might even be subconsciously avoiding the guy, for reasons we find out later), these two characters just sink into each other — heaping upon each other the unbridled passion they’ve apparently both been bottling up. And it’s gripping stuff.

As the film goes on, it’s one joy and folly after another, as Alix sorts out her demons — familial, professional, and otherwise — on the streets of Paris, while never losing the thought of this one strangely awesome guy who’s been thrust into her life.

Meanwhile, Bonnell sprinkles the whole thing with generous helpings of vibrant color, classical music, absurdly funny coincidences and mistakes (and a strong narrative line that never lets us forget why we walked in the door). Devos and Byrne are both wonderful. They’re constantly outdoing one another with moments of intensity, longing and loss — but at the same time, they’re a perfect complement.

If you’re looking to get hit right in the feelings, folks, then check this one out. In the end, it really is just a sigh, nothing more — but that’s why it’s good.

Directed by Jérôme Bonnell

Runtime: 104 minutes

English, French with subtitles

Screening at the Tribeca Film Festival

4/21 at 10pm and 4/25, 10pm, at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St., btw. 7th & 8th Aves.)

4/28, 2:30pm, at AMC Loews Village 7 (66 Third Ave., at 11th St.)

For tickets & info, call 646-502-5296 or visit tribecafilm.com/filmguide