Mourning has never looked quite as exquisite as when Juliette Binoche does it in “The Wait.” As Anna, a woman whose son has just died, she dazzles, even when lying in bed, still in her funeral clothes, her expressive eyes fixed on the void.
But “The Wait” is about more than sorrow — even beautiful sorrow. It’s about the strange, sometimes inexplicable ways people cope with loss.
Frenchwoman Anna lives alone on a sprawling Sicilian estate that once belonged to her ex-husband’s parents. With only a taciturn caretaker (Giorgio Colangeli) for company, Anna could go on lying in bed forever, but a phone call brings her back to life. It’s Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the girlfriend of Anna’s late son, who clearly hasn’t heard the bad news. She’s calling to confirm an upcoming visit.
This is where things get weird.
Rather than tell Jeanne the truth, Anna replies that, yes, she and her son Giuseppe are expecting her. And when the lovely, shy Jeanne arrives, curious about Giuseppe’s absence, Anna tells another lie, explaining that he had to leave town due to a death in the family, but that he will be back in time for the Easter holiday.
Even though “The Wait” takes place in the early 2000s, before the advent of Facebook and all the public mourning that came with it, it’s still difficult to imagine that Jeanne would fall for Anna’s story, especially after she calls Giuseppe multiple times on his cellphone, to no response.
But even with a plot that hinges on the implausible, the movie somehow works. The narrative is less important than the complex emotional landscape that “The Wait” so artfully depicts.
Making his feature debut, director Piero Messina is already adept at calibrating the constantly shifting atmosphere, whether panning across the barren, charred-looking landscape of Sicily, holding tight focus on Anna’s pained eyes or following Jeanne underwater, where she glides, serenely ignorant of the truth. As the two women begin to bond, the camera focuses on their hands, just a couple of inches apart, as they sit together in a Turkish bath. Later, the mood lightens when Anna hosts a lively dinner party with two men Jeanne has met at the beach. But the pain is never far away. In the corner, the caretaker shoots Anna a judgemental look for not telling Jeanne the truth.
Anna’s deception raises an intriguing question about her morality. Not only has she lied to Jeanne, but she’s been listening to the voice-mail messages that the girl leaves Giuseppe, alternately pleading with him to call her back and flirtatiously suggesting what they should do when they reunite. Is Anna’s suffering enough to warrant these actions? Those that know the truth don’t think so.
“I’m waiting for the right time to tell her,” Anna promises her perplexed sister-in-law (Corinna Locastro), her lower lip quivering, but barely.
The lead actresses, like the story, work in subtle ways. There’s plenty of potency in small gestures, anecdotes and shared glances. Methodically paced, “The Wait” doesn’t move quickly, but it goes by fast. (Time flies, it seems, even when you’re not having fun.) All it takes is the captivating presence of skilled professionals.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains nudity. In French and Italian with subtitles. 100 minutes.