Writer, blogger, and Gabriel Byrne fan Kristen Skeet shares her ideas about Just A Sigh with us here. Thank you, Kristen!

BEWARE! There are spoilers lurking below and if you have not seen the film, you must be wary!

As I told Kristen, I’ve seen Just A Sigh about 200 times now. Reading her essay inspired me watch it again. It is always a good thing when we fans inspire each other!

Just A Sigh, an essay by Kristen Skeet

For weeks after watching Just A Sigh, the film was all I could think about. This isn’t unusual for me. Any film or book that touches me, for whatever reason, will become the center of my life for a time. I won’t put the project to rest until I’ve examined every word or frame for every possible meaning it may hold, and will return to it for a pick-me-up when I’m not feeling my emotional best. Some call this obsessive. I call it being appropriately thorough to what moves me.

Many of Gabriel Byrne’s films have led me down this path of thoroughness. The writing is often stellar, and, if it’s not, Gabriel’s performance overshadows the fact. The first of these characters for me was Father Andrew Kiernan in Stigmata. The second was The Mechanic in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Both these characters were protectors, and a protector was exactly what I needed and lacked in my life at the time.

Perhaps, then, it’s what Gabriel’s character, Douglas, gives to Alix, a character I can relate to in almost every way, that drew me into Just a Sigh: acceptance, love, and support. Douglas is a man who understands who she is, loves who she is, and just wants her to be that, with him.

We first see Douglas when Alix first sees him, and he’s weeping on the train. She’s an actress on her way from Calais to Paris for an audition. He’s so beautiful and vulnerable here; of course she’s drawn to him. He soon catches her watching him, and their story begins.

justasigh-trailer-screencap-01

The camera work here is outstanding. We’re given a voyeuristic perspective of Alix watching Douglas, as Ms. Devos is shot from slightly above, extenuating her lovely eyes, which are wide and unblinking. We watch Alix watching Douglas, yet our perspective is direct when Douglas returns her gaze. We experience this as Alix does, and it’s no mystery why she’s so drawn to this man.

Their visual hide-and-seek on the train continues. Alix practices her audition lines and Douglas watches her. She is embarrassed at first and looks away, covering her mouth with her piece of paper. Again, he watches her, and she pauses. They’re already hooked and haven’t yet spoken a word.

When they reach Paris, Douglas asks her for directions before they depart the train and poor Alix is so taken by him, her response is muddled and uncertain. Her hesitation allows for another passenger to step in and help with the directions, and Alix slips away with the crowd. With Alix, we watch Douglas as he walks away from the train and presumably out of her life.

A brief stop to her Paris flat reveals that Alix likely lives with her long-term boyfriend, the elusive Antoine. We never see Antoine. We only hear him on the other end of the telephone line, if he chooses to answer Alix’s calls. That morning, Antoine is unreachable, unable or unwilling to answer. Alix’s cell phone is soon dead, and she’s left her charging cord in Calais. She is unreachable now, too. She can be anybody she chooses to be. She can be with anybody she chooses to be with.

After a beautiful but disastrous audition, Alix is left vulnerable and reeling. Antoine remains inaccessible. She hops from her usual train and heads for the subway map. In the next scene, she is approaching on foot the church where Douglas has told her he will be. She’s startled to realize it is a funeral. She’s seemingly horrified that she has come to such an intimate gathering, but then she sees him, Douglas. A man in the crowd moves and he appears.

justasigh-promo-14

The more obvious interpretation of this film is that it is Alix who pursues Douglas, and she certainly does pursue him, over and over again. I argue, however, that she only does this because he makes it so clear to her that he is interested. He is the first to not look away on the train. He approaches her to ask for directions to a church in Paris, although, as he tells Alix later, he once lived in Paris, so surely he knows the way, or at the very least could figure it out for himself.

I believe, from the moment Alix starts practicing her lines on the train, he sees in her the spirit of his long-unrequited love, Patricia, the woman whose funeral Douglas is attending. Surely Patricia is foremost on his mind. She’s certainly the reason for his tears, or the loss of her is, I should say.

And, suddenly, there is Alix, watching him. Both women are now foremost on his mind. Any similarities between them would be clear and obvious to him. We know nothing of Patricia’s physical looks. Perhaps the two women simply look alike and that’s what initially draws Douglas to Alix. But the more we learn of Patricia, the more it becomes clear she and Alix are very similar creatures. “We all wanted to be writers, but she was the artist,” Douglas later tells Alix of Patricia. “She was the only one who dedicated her life to it.” Alix, too, has dedicated her life to her art, even though it hasn’t always served her well. She wanders the streets of Paris literally penniless for much of the film, because she hasn’t been paid for her acting in weeks.

In an interview about the film, Gabriel explained how he approached playing Douglas as if the character were a ghost, and his performance is spot on. In fact, if it weren’t for Rodolphe’s interactions with Douglas, the argument could be made that Douglas is simply a figment of Alix’s imagination. At least, I wondered this. Often, when Gabriel appears on screen, it’s as if Douglas has just materialized: on the train, within the crowd at the funeral, at the market outside his hotel after he disappears from the cafe, in his hotel lobby after Alix leaves and returns to find him. It’s as if he appears exactly when Alix needs someone—needs him—to be there.

But, hapless Roldolphe speaks to Douglas, inviting him and Alix to a post-funeral brunch at a nearby cafe, and I’m willing to concede that Douglas is a real man. (Whew!)

le-temps-screencap-044-crop

Douglas is mesmerized with Alix while they speak to Roldolphe, and Alix is very aware of Douglas’s gaze. Who could blame her? What a gaze! But is he impressed by her moxie, or alarmed because she has followed him there? A smitten Roldolphe persuades Alix to come with him to the cafe and then hilariously and unwittingly—pardon my French—cock blocks our budding couple at every pass.

At the cafe, Alix overhears (eavesdrops on) Roldophe’s conversation with Douglas, and we learn he is staying at a hotel just up the street. There is mention of a woman in Douglas’s life, who has stayed behind in Maidstone, and Douglas mentions this is probably for the best. Is she his girlfriend? His wife? Is it for the best that she stayed behind because she and Patricia didn’t get along? We later learn Douglas has four children, and that they are grown. Is this woman their mother? We never find out, and neither does Alix.

Douglas and Alix are playing separate games of “what if” in this film, and for different reasons. He is consumed by the fatal loss of an old love, and struggling with old regrets. She has serious doubts about her long-term relationship with a man who is less than emotionally supportive. Antoine manages to give her what she needs, but only after she begs him for it. We know nothing of Douglas’s life, but it can be assumed that there is a lack of passion in it. Any passion he had died with Patricia, or so he thought. Because Alix appears, exactly when he needs her, and sparks something familiar in him he thought he’d lost forever.

So, what if? What if we break all the rules for each other? Where will it lead?

His hotel room is where it leads, and I maintain this is exactly what Douglas wants. He has already discarded his suit coat and tie, and is in the process of washing up when she arrives. She steps into his room without waiting for an invite, and he closes the door behind her and seals their fate. They will be together, but for how long? That is the game the rest of the film plays with us.

justasigh-trailer-screencap-13-cropped

This story is truly a love-of-a-lifetime, lived out within the confines of one day. Less than one day, in fact. It’s really only about six hours they spend together, on and off.

They’re intensely passionate with each other in their first physical encounter, and enjoy some silliness afterward, much like new lovers do, but there is also already a strong familiarity between them. She asks him questions about Patricia, and I’m not sure he’d answer these questions even if an old friend asked, but he answers her honestly and without hesitation. By their second physical encounter, there is a strong sense that they belong to each other. For his part, he very much enjoys that she is his, if only for this time. When Alix admits it is the first time she’s cheated on her boyfriend, Douglas says gently, “I’m not sure I want to know that.”

Does he not want to know that she’s gone against her better moral judgment for the first time because of him, or does he not want to think about the fact that there is another man in her life? A little of both, maybe, but I think it’s more the latter.

Their conversation here is much deeper and more serious. She reveals to him something she hasn’t yet told anybody: she is seven weeks pregnant. This leads to the cutest moment of the film. Douglas responds lightheartedly, “Already?” Alix bursts into a giggle and Gabriel allows Douglas one of those smiles, and it’s a perfect cinematic moment.

le-temps-screencap-121

It’s also a poignant moment, because it shows us that, if she were pregnant by him already, it would be okay. In fact, I believe he would like it to be true.

After her admission, he asks her all the right questions, offers her words of reassurance when she shares her fears of being a first-time mother, especially at her age. (Alix is 43.) He even thinks to ask her to come back to England with him, but refrains because, as he tells her, he “can see the answer in her eyes.” Douglas gives Alix exactly what she needs, and he does it without even a thought that she’d have to ask him for it.

Later, when her time to depart draws very near, he does ask her to come with him, or rather, he asks her “what if” he asked her to come with him. She is unable to say no to him, but instead throws her arms around his shoulders and tells him she has to go, showering him with kisses.

le-temps-screencap-195-cropped

They are a true couple now. They’ve walked the streets of Paris together, hand in hand, shared an afternoon of music and love-making. On the bus ride to the train station, he plants chaste kisses on her lips. Please stay with me, these kisses seem to say.  Please don’t go. Let me love you. But he knows he cannot ask her to do that. She has to take care of her life, and Douglas must take care of his, and they both know it, though they wish they didn’t.

“We’ll do better in another life, with different gods to watch over us,” Douglas tells her as they say their goodbyes. He is barely holding it together. “This life is long, isn’t it?” Alix responds, clutching his hand to her cheek. He nods. They kiss, and then she is gone. We see the exact moment Douglas’s heart breaks, written over his face, as soon as Alix is out of his arms. His heartbreak deepens as he watches her rush to catch her departing train.

Jérôme Bonnell leaves us with a glimmer of hope, though, thankfully. In the last scene, Douglas realizes Alix has left him her full name and address on an envelope she’d used to draw a sketch of him earlier. Douglas smiles at this revelation, and he looks hopeful. Without that scene, I might still be on the floor sobbing.

So, where are they now? In my mind, Alix performed Ibsen in Calais and then promptly broke up with Antoine. She returned to Paris on the first train out the next morning and got to Douglas’s hotel just before he checked out. He answered his door, just as he had the day before, and he told her that when he’d made his phone call the day before, it was to end his relationship with the woman he left in Maidstone.

They’re currently living together in the English countryside, raising her child, as well as the child they recently had together. Roldolphe is still wandering the streets of Paris with his paper bag full of apple pastry, and Alix’s vile sister was divorced by her husband, and left penniless and alone after he lost all their money at the race track.

le-temps-wallpaper-demo-01Wallpaper by Stella (downloadable!)

3 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts about Just a sigh with us Kristen.
    You have written several things that I had not thought about before about this movie.
    And believe me, I have seen this movie many times and thought a lot about it.

    Thank you again Kristen!

    Nora from Norway

  2. Verónica

    Hi Kristen,

    For second time I’ve read an essay of yours, this time about a loved film: “Just a Sigh”.
    I liked it and I see that you(because not everyone) realized of some very tiny gestures of Gabriel that makes me admire very much his capacity of showing feelings and sensations with his face.
    In this case I refer to that very few “seconds” when his face shows his “broken heart” when Alix finally goes towards the train.
    The other moment is when he sees the envelope. That moment is very brief too and his smile is so tiny that majority of people even don’t realize of it.

    This is only a part of your essay .

    Being a romantic person I prefer to think this story is not finished yet and I believe that it has an open final.

    Thanks for sharing :-)

  3. Kristen,

    Thank you for your insightful take on this lovely film. I must watch it again. Had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen 2 years ago. An anthem for living in the moment. Alix and Douglas chose this path, if only for a day.

    Angelle from Canada

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *