There is a distinct genre (or subgenre, perhaps) of films in which women have their apparently happy (often married) lives completely wrecked (generally by an unfaithful husband) and then go off to find themselves. Under the Tuscan Sun, the focus of this review, unquestionably falls into the genre.
While often uplifting in the end, there is a serious and very real discussion to be had about these films and the actual message which they impart. If the woman ends up with a new man is the film suggesting that women can only be happy if they're in a relationship? If the woman ends up happy but alone, is the film suggesting that she has some sort of internal defect? What is the right way to represent a happy, independent, well-adjusted woman in film?
I am not entirely sure that I have the answers to all of these questions—I'm not even sure that there is any agreement about the answers—but as I see it (and I am clearly of the wrong gender), Under the Tuscan Sun, whatever other faults it may have, does a pretty good job exploring the issue even if it doesn't get all the right answers.
Written and directed by Audrey Wells (and loosely based on Frances Mayes book), Under the Tuscan Sun stars Diane Lane as Frances, a woman who has undergone the exact sort of traumatic event described above. When the movie opens, the happy, well-adjusted Frances is attending a book party for a former student only to quickly have her entire marriage fall apart. After a bit of despair, two friends—Patti (Sandra Oh) and Grace (Kate Walsh)—give her a nice Tuscan vacation to take her mind off her problem.
Somehow, some way, Frances ends up buying a horrifically run down Tuscan villa and sets about fixing it. Naturally, as she fixes the place she also sets about fixing her life. And that is really the heart of the movie and where our big questions come in.
Frances is not just running away by buying a place in Tuscany, she's looking for something, even if she doesn't know what, and the film spends its time following her as she works it all out. She looks for her new life within the villa restoration, within the friendships she forms with her contractor and his employees, within the lives of her neighbors, and in her own search for love.