Female Filmmaker Friday: Under The Tuscan Sun, 2003 (dir. Audrey Wells)

Somehow I didn’t see this movie when it was first in theaters. I have no idea why not, since I was a senior in high school when it came out and went to the movie theater in my hometown practically every weekend. I do, however, remember when I first saw it. It was about a year after it originally came out, when I came home to visit during winter break after my first semester at UC Berkeley. It was exactly the kind of escapist rom-com that I loved when I was a kid and it was exactly what I needed after a tough first semester. NB: writer-director-producer Audrey Wells is also a Cal alum. Go Bears! I subsequently bought the DVD about a year later from the Walgreens on Shattuck on a rainy day and proceeded to watch it once every few weeks for the rest of college and then some. I’m really not sure how many times I’ve seen it (including the few times I watched it on TV!) I love it so much. This is a Best Friend kind of movie. Comforting and warm and dependable, but every time I watch it I notice something new to love.


I thought for this piece instead of writing about the entire movie and its plot, I would just write about the specific shots that I chose to represent the film and why, in rewatching the film just now, they stuck out to me so much. For starters, the film begins with a close-up of what we later find out is a sunflower, as seen in the title. Sunflowers are a running motif in the film for Frances and her gradual transformation.


After Frances finds out that her husband is cheating on her at a book singing of one of her students, Wells cuts to this shot of her head as she looks out towards San Francisco and her old life. She’s like Lot’s wife looking back when she knows she really shouldn’t.


I love Diane Lane so much. As far as I’m concerned, a movie cannot be completely terrible if Diane Lane is somewhere in the cast. She is delightful and has the greatest screen presence. Throughout the first section of the film, Frances is mostly depressed, dealing with life after her divorce and writer’s block. She makes a lot of great faces like the one above.


I love this part for many reasons. I love how happy she is for her best friend who is about to become a mother. I love how the movie shows lesbians as regular people who do things like have a baby together without calling attention to it in an unnatural way. And I love how Frances uses the word “auntie”. I myself have recently become an auntie, and you better believe I keep saying it in my head in Diane Lane’s voice.


Frances goes to Italy on a “Gay and Away” tour after her friends give her their tickets and that is where the film really takes off. While in a marketplace buying grapes, Frances notices a woman straight out of a Fellini movie (this gets mentioned a lot) – and it is none other than Lindsay Duncan, another actress I adore to pieces. Lindsay Duncan is one of the great actresses of her generation as far as I am concerned and like Diane Lane is always superb.


Frances sees a listing for Bramasole – which mean “yearn for the light” (much like how a sunflower leans towards the sun) – and later her tour bus gets stuck in front of it when a herd of sheep take over the road. Frances takes this all as a sign and decides to buy the villa. This whole sequence is great, complete with angry Germans, and an old Italian Countess needing a sign from God before she sells her family home. Luckily, that sign comes – in the form of bird poop – right on Frances’s head and viola the villa is her’s!


So we see the back of Frances’s head again, but this time she is not looking back at her old life, but moving forward – towards a new and unknown life. This is such a powerful moment.


I was trying to decide between this shot of Frances weathering the storm with the Virgin Mary or the owl that takes shelter with her, but this shot won out in the end. Early in the film, this painting of Mary on her bed was one of the first features of the house to introduce itself to her and it stays with her as she grows and changes.


Another moment I love, where Katharine (Lindsay Duncan) reappears in Frances’s life – she’s friends with her neighbor – and after an awkward moment at dinner force feeds Frances some vanilla gelato. There’s a lot of gelato in this movie – mostly eaten by Katharine and children. Katherine talks of meeting Federico Fellini and the advice he supposedly gave her, the most important of which is to never lose your childish enthusiasm. Having read a few books of essays by Fellini, this sounds exactly like something he would really say. I love this shot in particular because it shows friendship so wonderfully.


I can’t not include a shot of Brendan Fraser in George of the Jungle. At one point, Frances takes Pawel (one of the Polish men working on her house) to the movies and George of the Jungle  – dubbed in Italian – is playing. So delightful!


In the special features they tell you how the speedo on this dude had to be digitally added because the censors (or the studio or something) thought this guy’s bare butt was too racy. Such bullshit! Also, can you imagine getting that special effects job?! Actually, the only thing that hasn’t aged well about this movie is the handful of CGI effects they used. Some of them couldn’t be helped – like when the washing machine gets struck by lightning – but there are a few enhanced shots of vistas and sunshine that really don’t look too great 10+ years later.


Let’s talk about Marcello. Yes, she would meet an insanely handsome man named Marcello who at one point picks up a kitten while flirting with her. This is an escapist film and this is what we want to see. Well, this is what I want to see anyways.


Later, we find out that Patti (Sandra Oh) was left by her girlfriend Grace (Kate Walsh) because she realized she didn’t want to have a baby after all. There’s a lot of statics backing up how common it is for pregnant women to be abandoned by their partners before giving birth. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but it brings best friends Patti and Frances back together and if this movie is about anything, it’s about the importance of the family you make with your friends and those you keep around you. Also, let’s talk about that steamy toilet! Also, also – one time in college I watched this movie with my friend Louis and his boyfriend at the time because they had both just discovered that Sandra Oh and Kate Walsh played lovers in it and they were both huge Grey’s Anatomy fans and the three of us got drunk on limoncello and it was perfect.


Oh the Polish workers who renovate the villa for Frances, how I love them so! I haven’t read the book on which this is very loosely based (though I do own it), but I often wonder if there’s more in the book about them and why they are immigrants in Italy. The book (and based on the film Frances goes to see), the movie are set in the mid-to-late-90s, which would be just after the fall of the Soviet Union, so I’m guessing it has something to do with that, though it’s never fully explained.


Look at this beautiful shot! All of the scenes in Positano are so beautifully shot, it’s a shame this last time doesn’t go so well for Frances. Though, I do like how they have their great moment and then when things don’t work out – as things often don’t – it all feels so real. He’s not really a jerk and he’s not really trying to hurt her, but she gets hurt anyways. It’s always strange how easy you can get hurt by someone whom you barely know when they’re not really trying to hurt you. It’s probably not even losing them that hurts, so much as losing the hope they represented. That’s certainly what it is for Frances.


As Frances loses her Marcello, Katharine has lost her artist man friend and is in need of a Marcello herself. She gets drunk and recreates the famous fountain scene in Fellini’s La dolce vita (props to the costume designer putting her in the perfect dress!). She’s saved, not by Marcello, but by Mr. Martini (Vincent Riotta), the realtor who becomes one of Frances’s best friends. He saves Katharine after Frances asks her to, then the two women share a heart-to-heart. After agreeing that love’s a bitch, Katharine says her favorite of Fellini’s characters is actually Cabiria, who when at the lowest part of her life is still able to find happiness and laughter. That’s something both these women need to find in themselves.


Frances is able to do this by helping Pawel and her neighbor’s daughter Chiara get her parents’ permission to be married. As Frances stands up for him, asserting that she is his family, we see how the major theme of this film is the family we create for ourselves with our friends and loved ones. In watching this film again, I noticed a whole bunch of moments between these young lovers that I had never seen before. Their relationship is so sweet and hopeful.


There’s quite a few nods to Italian cinema thrown into this film, but probably the best one is the old man with the flowers. He doesn’t say anything, but from the moment Frances buys the villa, she waves at him as he drops off flowers and a memorial nearby; every morning he ignores her. Every morning that is, until right after the wedding sequence – at this point she’s been living there for over a year – he finally tips his hat at her. This no-named old man is played by Mario Monicelli – a very famous Italian writer-director. He was in his late-80s at the time he filmed this movie. His screenplays were nominated for Oscars twice and four of his films were nominated for Best Foreign Language film. For all Katharine’s talk of Fellini, here we have a living tribute to Italian cinema. Monicelli passed away in 2010, at the age of 95.


In the end, Frances closes her eyes and magically a hot man (who’s also a writer!) appears and she gets her happy ending for herself – as well as all her friends. Her new family is richer and better than the one she “lost” in San Francisco and she’s got a whole new – and renewed – life waiting for her.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on November 21, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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