The plot of “Just a Sigh” will sound familiar to anyone who saw 1995’s “Before Sunrise.” A man and woman meet on a train and the sparks fly, so they decide to spend some time together, even though they know it probably won’t go anywhere. The most obvious difference is that “Just a Sigh” has a middle-aged pair standing in for fresh-faced 20-somethings.
On a more subtle level, this new story doesn’t have what made “Before Sunrise” such a beloved movie — and one that spawned two sequels — which is brilliant, naturalistic dialogue that reveals plenty about the protagonists. The day-in-a-life routine in “Just a Sigh” doesn’t sneak up on you in the same, meaningful way.
Emmanuelle Devos plays Alix, a 43-year-old actress who hasn’t quite mastered adulthood. The Frenchwoman has been working on a play in Calais, but heads to Paris for an audition and manages to nearly forget her train ticket, run out of cash and show up late for the casting call. Meanwhile, her cellphone dies and she forgot to bring her charger.
She’s flighty and flaky, but one thing manages to hold her attention, which is the British man she locks eyes with on the train (Gabriel Byrne). After many furtive glances, he asks her for directions to a church, and she takes it as an invitation, heading there after her audition to track him down. He’s there all right — for a funeral. And he’s clearly upset. Most people might be somewhat embarrassed if their obsessive tendencies led them to inadvertently crash a funeral. But Alix hardly seems ashamed as she follows the man and the other mourners to a nearby bar.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much more, except perhaps that Alix is in a long-term relationship with a man who can’t seem to give her the validation she so badly needs. Perhaps that’s why she’s following a stranger around Paris, even if her stalking can feel unbearably awkward at times.
Writer-director Jerome Bonnell has worked with Devos in another relationship drama, “Waiting for Someone,” and here he challenges her to mine a lot from a little. She rises to the occasion. In one scene, as she rides the Metro, she watches a couple holding hands, then a mother and daughter, and her understated expressions convey a powerful array of emotions. But we never get to know her beyond the obvious (that she’s a bit of a mess) and the curious (that she’s a bit of a stalker). As for Byrne’s character, who goes unnamed until the final moments of the movie, he amounts to little more than a searing set of sad eyes. (Byrne really is a master of the handsome-mournful expression.)
Without much to go on, “Just a Sigh” lives up to its name. It disappears without a trace.
Unrated. AtAvalon. Contains nudity and sexual situations. In English and French with subtitles.