The mythology around Japan as a nation of everyday ghosts — where the living and the dead share space, occasionally in view of each other — can lead certain western filmmakers into dubious territory: If you don’t recall how Gus van Sant floundered with the mawkish, condescending exoticism of “The Sea of Trees,” trust that it’s best forgotten. Centered on a long-grieving Frenchwoman who finally makes peace with her husband’s death over the course of a Japanese work trip, “Sidonie in Japan” risks similar pitfalls — but Élise Girard’s droll, bittersweet romance mostly dodges them with grace and good humor, plus a pointed awareness of the limitations of its outsider perspective.
Premiering in the Venice Days sidebar at this year’s Venice Film Festival, this is a sweetly unassuming affair that is given some vinegary oomph by the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead — which will doubtless secure “Sidonie in Japan” more international distributor attention than it would otherwise receive. Still, much as the film benefits from the star’s signature quizzical semi-froideur, it’s not a solo showcase, growing gradually into a winning two-hander between Huppert and Tsuyoshi Ihara (best known internationally for his prominent role in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima”) as her unlikely chaperone and suitor. Their chemistry, often silent but tinglingly felt in passing gazes and gestures, carries Girard’s third feature through any longueurs or over-familiar patches.
It’s with some reluctance that Sidonie (Huppert) is in Japan at all: In the opening scene, at Charles de Gaulle Airport, she considers deliberately missing her flight to Osaka. A once-renowned author who hasn’t written anything in years, she’s invited to Japan by independent publisher Kenzo Mizoguchi (Ihara) to promote a reissued translation of her debut novel. Upon meeting him at the airport, her eager enquiry as to whether he’s related to the celebrated Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi is swiftly shut down with the reminder that certain names are very common in Japan; it’s not the first time he’ll politely point out the unreliability of her cultural assumptions.
The book tour gets off to an awkward start, with Sidonie out of practise at the kind of interviews required of her — particularly regarding a book that is closely entangled with the loss of her entire immediate family as a young woman. “I wouldn’t say writing heals, but it maybe helped me survive that time,” she says in one of her more lucid moments; at others, the trip merely reminds her how distant she feels from the craft, from which she’s more or less retired since the death of her husband Antoine (August Diehl) some years before. When Antoine starts sporadically appearing in her hotel room, playing cards and making conversation, she’s initially spooked, but Kenzo insists she shouldn’t be: “The invisible and the visible co-exist,” he explains.
The film treats its ghost-story elements casually, with only the occasional translucent visual effect drawing attention to the uncanniness of Sidonie and Antoine’s renewed acquaintance. Their wistful chats, meanwhile, serve principally to draw the introverted author’s attention to her lack of comparable real-world human connections. Once she looks up in that regard, the patient, somewhat mystified but plainly besotted Kenzo is the first face she sees — at which point “Sidonie in Japan” evolves into a kind of romantic melan-comedy, built on a tentative exchange of cultures and individual stories.
Always best in roles that call equally for frailty and proud, formidable composure, Huppert plays Sidonie’s gradual thaw into the world by slow, nervous degrees, her face a mask of tension that occasionally collapses into irrational giggles or a sudden, memory-triggered flush of warm feeling. She makes believable the script’s occasional, critical swerves into cringe comedy — as when Sidonie, mortifyingly face-blind on Asian turf, accosts a stranger with requests for her assistant — and builds a palpable, tactile rapport with Ihara that rests on both characters’ love of quiet. The film shares it too, occasionally pausing its storytelling to take in the scenery, the breeze, the interior hum of a luxury car in mild traffic or, with a nod to the touristic inevitability of the image, the cotton-candy blur of cherry blossom from a train window. Gentle and empathetic, “Sidonie in Japan” earns itself the odd postcard indulgence.