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Diane Lane in Audrey Wells’s Under the Tuscan Sun

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… the gray-leafed olive, mother, nurse of children,
perennial generations growing in her arms–
neither young nor old can tear her from her roots,
the eternal eyes of Guardian Zeus
look down upon her always,
great Athena too
her eyes gray-green and gleaming as the sea.

–Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus (trans. Robert Fagles, ll.797-802)

Critics have been complaining that Audrey Wells’s new romance Under the Tuscan Sun, adapted from Frances Mayes’s book, isn’t worthy of its star, Diane Lane, and they’re right. In the movie Lane plays a San Francisco book reviewer whose husband cheats on her and then rips her off in a California no-fault divorce; unable to recuperate in the States she goes on a tour of Tuscany and impulsively buys a dilapidated villa. The movie is a pretty random patch job of divorcee travails and travelogue adventures and carpe diem and fertility pageant. The jokes are soft, the emotions run broad rather than deep, the exhortations are to cringe, and the cultural appreciation is middle-high-brow. It knows its audience, however: at the first shot of a woman’s new-born the entire theater went, “Ohhhhhhhhh!” (My sister would like it for the discussion of limoncello alone.) Such coherence as it has comes from several plot strands in which people don’t die of broken hearts. Mainly the movie just tries to be whatever it needs to be from scene to scene. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more ravishingly varied performance than Lane’s in a more rattletrap vehicle.

You want to keep in mind that American movies have almost never been fully worthy of the most talented stars. Bette Davis, arguably Hollywood’s top dramatic actress ever, for instance, never appeared in a script better than All About Eve (1950), which is no more than a terrific comic melodrama. We love it because it lets her use her what’s excessive about her personality–her mannered gestures and delivery–for laughs, beating the drag queens to the punch for once. But it’s a real opportunity for her because the melodramatic tensions allow her to invest the character’s vulnerability with real feeling about a middle-aged woman facing the decline of power and career and love. (Davis, Warner Brothers veteran that she was, expands the role as much through the melodrama as the comedy, which probably wouldn’t have been the case if Claudette Colbert, the star originally cast in the role, had played it.)

Davis gave her finest dramatic performances for director William Wyler in Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940), both of which are melodramatic romances that give scope to her temperament because the star roles represent vice rather than virtue, a pop route to complexity. In The Privates Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) her role as Elizabeth I makes explicit her absolute command of the screen, but the potboiler title, and the fact that she has to perform opposite Errol Flynn, i.e., in a void, tell you how middlin’ the industry’s ambitions were, even for the queen of the Warner Brothers lot. Davis appeared in so many movies of lesser literary value that we’re thankful simply for scripts that work in their own terms (which Under the Tuscan Sun does only by the skin of its teeth). It’s by these standards that we consider enjoyable tear-jerking crapola like Dark Victory (1939) and Now, Voyager (1942) “classics.” (The way Davis uses her gaze in the ice cream parlor scene in Now, Voyager, scanning back and forth while her lover’s daughter calls him on the phone, creates an almost schizophrenic split between the ludicrous emotional content and the star’s virtuosic means.) Davis’s Medea, her Hedda Gabler, her Kate Croy, exist only in our imaginations.

Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman didn’t do much better and James Cagney did worse. It’s only an issue with the real actors, not the legions of synthesized amateur-hour stars like Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, or Elizabeth Taylor, who were as much sea-monkeys as actors: drop them in a studio and watch them come to life. Gable at least patented a manner; it still works but only within a limited range and at times it consists of little more than smirking at his female co-stars. What’s insane about Hollywood is that these plastic dolls were sometimes given the challenging projects–Gable and Shearer in O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1932); Shearer in Romeo and Juliet (1936); John Wayne in O’Neill’s Long Voyage Home (1940); Liz Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew (1967). So I hesitate to discount Diane Lane’s performance in Under the Tuscan Sun simply because the occasion for it is unworthy of her.

Lane is the greatest naturalistic actress of her generation, and one of the best we’ve ever had. She shows it throughout Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful (2002), and in the astonishing commuter train sequence she pulls off something I don’t think I’ve ever seen an American actress do. The sequence reminded me of a similar one in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) in which Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland’s sex is intercut with objective shots of them dressing for dinner afterwards. Lyne’s sequence calls less attention to the director and relies more on his lone performer. In general this is in keeping with the way Lyne and his screenwriters adapted Claude Chabrol’s source film La Femme infidele (1969), which is a work of irony–that such an orderly, contained man would resort to murder, that his wife would respect him more after he’d killed her lover.

Compared to Chabrol, Lyne is a romantic, and a sloshy one. So by temperament he had to build up the wife’s affair; we’re lucky that he was interested in having his camera gain access to the wife’s emotions as well as her body. On the train, Lane is returning from the first round with her bad-boy French lover and as the movie intercuts with the sex she’s remembering she can’t keep her afteremotions from washing over her. She twists in her seat and puts her hands to her face while her skin reddens and pales, and I couldn’t always tell what she was supposed to be feeling. It’s a pointed sequence in which we’re not being cued to specific emotions but just watching an actress in the throes the way we would watch a natural phenomenon. With awe.

Lane is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Winona Ryder, whose notion of dramatic acting is to make appropriate faces at the camera. It seems as if Lane doesn’t need to summon an emotion, or think about it at all. When the character feels it she expresses it, and she show can them all at once, or in a series with no perceptible breaks in between. With Lane there are no barriers between herself and the woman she’s playing.

Though Unfaithful is not the sophisticated object that Chabrol’s cold, brilliant movie, built around Michel Bouquet‘s meticulously controlled performance, is, Lyne’s bodice-ripping treatment turns it into a really good vehicle for Lane. As she had shown in Stacy Cochran’s incomparable comic romance My New Gun (1992) and A Walk on the Moon (1999), she has the carriage of a suburban good girl but an emotional fluidity that increases with heat and pressure. For the middle-class audience she’s the perfect heroine for erotic adventures because she seems like us, slightly withheld by conditioning, but when she lets go she finds resources for pleasure that astonish and bewilder her. (My New Gun gives us the classic-comic version in her role of a suburban wife in need of a wake-up kiss.) In these performances she shows how the capacity for pleasure interacts with the conditioning that is meant to produce reliable, predictable wives and mothers. Some of that conditioning is worth hanging onto, but not all of it, and watching her work out her confusions is like watching the blending of color and temperature where a river meets an ocean.

This quality doesn’t by itself make her a natural for comedy, which often requires more deliberate use of artifice. Stanwyck was also a natural in front of the camera, but put the old Hollywood distance between herself and her roles. She could play emotionally naked in Stella Dallas (1937) but not be emotionally naked. This enabled her to move easily between roles as a tempting vice in an ironic romance like Double Indemnity (1944) and the heroine of a high comedy like The Lady Eve (1941).

Lane is enormously winning but doesn’t come across as a comedy specialist, like Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan, with their stylized manic disarray, furious and downy, respectively. And she doesn’t have a command of high comedy style, as Judy Davis does; she doesn’t have a way with the words themselves. She can be stunningly movie-starish, but we’re always aware of the diffident woman pulling the look or the moment off. We’re inside with her, feeling what it must be like to be seen as gorgeous. Though she’s always recognizably, and likably, American, Lane works more like European actresses, like Jeanne Moreau who at her greatest, in Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) and Jacques Demy’s Bay of the Angels (1963), embodies a changing sky of passions. Lane’s talent isn’t limited by generic distinctions.

Under the Tuscan Sun is a comic romance about the return of spring; it’s a pop celebration of fecundity in which snakes and olives symbolize the life force in the coupling that all humans seek. It dials in a surprisingly wide band of things Lane can do. She’s amazingly skilled in the early scene with her attorney in which, puffy-eyed with misery, she keeps guessing what further treachery her ex-husband has perpetrated. You’ve never seen a defter dialogue scene in which the dialogue has been elided. She goes on to play every variety of despair, hope, and exultation that are compatible with a comic outcome. And her physicality can be goofy as well as erotic, for instance, in the scene after her first night of post-divorce sex when she grabs her breasts in jubilation that she can still get laid. She’s a delicate powerhouse and to give Wells credit she’s more effective because of the movie’s broad approach, because it isn’t simply a head-on romantic comedy. When her character’s Italian realtor/advisor tells her that her wish has come true that there be a wedding and a child born in her villa, though not in the way she had hoped, she acknowledges it with something like the still force of Anna Magnani at the end of Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1953) recognizing that she’s only a player in a drama.

I am a bit mystified by how Audrey Wells wrote such a bad script because her first picture as director, Guinevere (1999), was so free of compromise. It starred Sarah Polley as a girl from a competitive, overachieving family who takes up with Stephen Rea as a drunken, philandering photographer rather than going to Harvard Law School and finds herself in a way that professional career tracks never would have allowed her to. Wells was sensitive to the subtlest nuances in an area of experience usually crowded right off the screen–a young woman’s tentative search for identity–without once descending into preciousness or teariness or coarse feminist posturing. The early scene in Under the Tuscan Sun in which a novelist whose book Lane had panned gets his revenge on her is the closest her new movie comes to the experienced sensibility of Guinevere. (It reminded me of Jean Smart’s hair-raising confrontation with Rea in that picture.)

Guinevere was a fine example of literary realism: you were always aware of Wells’s mind working through the logic of the relationship she had set up. Not surprisingly it wasn’t a hit and didn’t even get the reviews it deserved. So Under the Tuscan Sun feels like a conscious career-saver. It’s more along the lines of the script that Wells wrote for The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) with its weirdly complacent mixture of academic-feminist complaint and traditional female passivity–same old tooth-rotting sugar, updated packet.

In Under the Tuscan Sun Wells has returned to the pop-feminist roots of The Truth About Cats and Dogs though without that movie’s whininess (e.g., Janeane Garofalo referring to a beauty magazine as “destructive literature”). Some of the early material feels fresh and Sandra Oh as Lane’s pregnant lesbian friend who follows her down misery lane has a nice deadpan delivery. I didn’t even mind Lindsay Duncan‘s gurgling turn as an Englishwoman living in Italy and sharing the droppings of wisdom she gathered from Federico Fellini. Under the Tuscan Sun has enough crowd-pleasing components that you can’t say it’s inexplicably popular. Plus, the material is surprisingly elemental (the sky, the sea, the bountiful earth, both destructive and productive natural processes) at the same time that it pays tribute to the human culture by which, for instance, olives are made edible. And with Diane Lane emerging from a hard emotional winter as a sort of goddess of fruitfulness I would say it’s deservedly popular, even if it’s not exactly memorable. The material is too patchy for Lane’s performance to build in intensity, but the actress doesn’t dumb her work down and gives each random scene the best she’s got in whatever mode is required. Count your blessings.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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