Venice 2023 review: Sidonie au Japon (Élise Girard)

Sidonie au Japon is a fascinating examination of the shifting psychological state of a complex woman as she undergoes various challenges.”

Grief comes in many forms, and we all mourn in our individual ways – for some, simmering in the memories of a loved one brings the most comfort. In contrast, others tend to plunge themselves into the unknown, in the hopes that some kind of journey, whether metaphysical or literal, will aid them in the healing process. For the titular character in Sidonie au Japon the latter seems the most appropriate, even if she didn’t intend for this to be the case. Written and directed by Élise Girard, the film tells the story of Sidonie Perceval, an author who has recently suffered the loss of her husband. In order to distract herself from these mournful feelings, she decides to overcome her anxiety and agrees to travel to Japan, where one of her most popular books is being re-released. Over the course of a few days she finds herself exploring Japanese culture, with her publisher accompanying her along the way. He proves to be an invaluable resource to our protagonist, and eventually becomes something more to her as they become more familiar with one another. Beautifully poetic, Sidonie au Japon is a charming film about the process of grieving and the healing that comes when one decides to turn that heartbreak into something constructive, which is the foundation of this wonderfully quaint story that looks at life from a few different fascinating perspectives.

There is a curious sub-genre of films that focus on characters – usually those in the arts or some academic field – going on a journey, and in the process they reflect on their past. Those films interweave the present moment with the memories that their protagonists carry close to their hearts, the two working in tandem to paint a vivid portrait of an individual and the various people that have made an impact in their life. Sidonie au Japon joins this group and becomes something of a contemporary version of Wild Strawberries (and other similar films crafted in its image, such as Stardust Memories), introducing us to a complex protagonist who is on her way to a prestigious event in which her career will be subjected to a lengthy but celebratory retrospective by those who have admired her work. Along the way she ruminates on the past as part of the process of grieving for a husband who constantly appears as an apparition, providing Sidonie with advice and guidance but stopping short of giving her the closure she desires. This film draws a lot of its complexity from how it blends the past and present, and through the elegant use of flashbacks and inserted abstractions Girard develops quite a beautiful tapestry of ideas. Each memory and conversation between characters is essential, tenderly placed in this film to convey a particular message that directs our attention to the deeper and more profound themes lingering beneath the surface.

In the last couple of decades Isabelle Huppert has carved an interesting niche for herself by taking roles that usually are about older French women abandoning their comfortable lives to venture off into distant corners of the world – and joining films such as Another Country and Frankie is Sidonie au Japon, in which Huppert turns in a lovely performance that draws from a familiar set of skills, but is no less wonderful. As inarguably one of the greatest actors of the past several decades, she has done more than enough to prove her mettle, and a role like the titular character in this film would certainly not be a challenge for anyone of her stature. Yet she still approaches the part with the same curiosity and dedication that she has demonstrated throughout her career – and this role in particular allows her to balance her remarkable command of language with her incredible expressivity, the wordless moments saying just as much as those filled with Girard’s beautiful dialogue. It is an intimate story of a woman trying to find herself in the aftermath of a major loss, and Huppert brings so much soul and heartfulness to the role, elevating the film from being just a run-of-the-mill drama and instead allowing it to flourish into something much more complex, all through the immense brilliance of her stunning performance. She is paired with Tsuyoshi Ihara and August Diehl, who respectively play the publisher with whom she forms a steady connection that eventually becomes much more than just a professional relationship, and her deceased husband who appears to her in key moments, offering her the guidance she needs, but never the answers that she desperately wants. They are both tremendous, but they are aware that they exist within this film to support Huppert, whose journey is the key component of the film and the primary reason it feels so deeply compelling.

To tie all these threads together, Girard approaches every aspect of Sidonie au Japon to develop on each idea in a way that is striking and unconventional, but still easily accessible and compelling despite some of its more downbeat material. She employs a dreamlike approach in which Sidonie moves between the real world and her own subconscious, provoked by her grief, causing her to see her deceased husband everywhere – and as she ventures deeper into these delusions she starts to interact more with the past, which is presented in much the same way as the authentic segments, creating a fascinating blend of fantasy and reality that the film constructs beautifully. The emotions embedded in the film also contribute to the story, which is driven as much by the narrative as it is by the atmosphere. There are moments of genuine whimsy and wonder scattered throughout this film, which is counterbalanced by a pensive state of melancholy in other moments. The balance of gentle humour with heartfelt drama is vital to the identity of a film that aims to present a three-dimensional portrait of an ordinary woman undergoing major changes. These come about through her attempts to find a balance between her professional and personal lives, which tend to blur once she starts coming to terms with the past, rather than perpetually trying to hold onto these fleeting memories and instead seeking out new experiences.

A quiet and intimate character-driven drama with a beautiful soulfulness, Sidonie au Japon is a poignant and meaningful film about grief, both the experience that comes with trying to process a loss and the journey towards healing that confronts everyone who has suffered a loss. There is something profound lingering beneath the surface of this film, a sense of complexity and humanity that is both striking and deeply moving, a product of the director’s honest approach to the storytelling process. Through employing a stream-of-consciousness approach Girard is able to blur the past and present, demonstrating the various trials and tribulations of our protagonist, a woman who has found herself desperately trying to hold onto her sanity in the aftermath of a major loss. Often quite funny, but also not neglectful of the more serious aspects of such a story, Sidonie au Japon is a fascinating examination of the shifting psychological state of a complex woman as she undergoes various challenges, each one uncovering new details of her past. This unique and deeply captivating existential drama understands that the most beautiful moments are usually those in which some of the deeper truths about ourselves are left unspoken.