Writers don’t have easy lives. Just ask Frances. Sure, trashing the life work of others in professional reviews, quaffing champagne at book signings and pecking away at a keyboard all day may sound wonderful to some, but around the corner is always lurking that horrible demon Writer’s Block. And Frances is haunted big time. Welcome to her world. Right now she’s holed up in a tiny apartment after discovering her husband is having an affair and wants a divorce. She is alone, afraid and completely unable to write.
Worried that Frances is falling into a funk from which she will never escape, her pregnant, lesbian chum Patti offers her a first class ticket to Italy, thinking it might be a pleasant distraction. Frances glumly accepts but finds her troubles barely assuaged … until she spies a run-down country estate in Tuscany. And it’s for sale. You know how people say you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Someone ought to have told Frances not to look at romantic, ramshackle estates while grieving the end of a marriage. Before she can blurt out “exchange rate” she finds herself the proud owner of a home that, well, needs a lot of work. Yet as walls get torn down and fresh paint is applied, Frances finds herself slowly being renewed as well.
Divorce gets a bad rap just by what it does to Frances’ life. She goes from being a vivacious, fulfilled woman to a heartbroken shade merely passing through each day. Patti tells her that the beginning and the end of a relationship should be “fun, fun, fun.” Though Frances tries to take her advice, her dejected demeanor shows that she doesn’t buy the rhetoric. (Notably, Patti abandons it as well when her partner unceremoniously dumps her.) Divorce “doesn’t actually kill you … [but] it should” Frances states. The idea of recovering from being betrayed by the person who pledged to love her until death seems almost impossible.
Here, the movie introduces another message. Namely, the good that comes from tenaciously refusing to give up on life. Frances tells Martini, a kind real estate agent, that she “bought a house for a life [she] didn’t even have,” a home in which she hoped there would be a wedding and a family to feed. He responds by recounting how a railroad track was built between Vienna and Venice—before there was a train. Preparing for joy before it exists is foolish only if one quits seeking it. Frances ends up concluding that although she has not found true love, it does exist, and that a broken heart will not destroy a person. Her personal growth is symbolized by an oddly placed faucet smack in the middle of a wall. At film’s beginning it’s utterly dry; by the closing scene it’s copiously gushing. Her final lines are, “Unbelievably good things can happen, even late in the game. … Any arbitrary turning along the way and I would be different.”
Additionally, Martini repeatedly goes out of his way to help Frances settle into her new home, helping her find contractors and ridding the house of vermin. He also selflessly helps a drunk woman out of a fountain.
Roman Catholic portraits of the Virgin Mary adorn the villa that Frances buys and the Virgin becomes something of a comfort to her. She looks to her during a violent thunderstorm and after a painful romantic breakup. A lapsed Methodist, she says, “To my surprise I’ve become friendly with Mary.” Elsewhere, a portrait of the Virgin conspicuously dangles between the breasts of a well-endowed woman wearing a low-cut shirt. Various aspects of Roman Catholic worship crop up, including a religious parade and a living nativity scene. Martini gives Frances a statue of San Lorenzo, the patron saint of cooks, and tells her to pray to him in order to find someone to cook for. Before selling the villa to Frances, its owner claims she needs a sign from God, to which Frances replies, “I believe in signs, too.” (They receive one when a pigeon poops on her, an occurrence taken as a blessing.) When Patti asks Frances how she plans to renovate the villa, she says, “I can hire the muscular descendents of Roman gods to do the heavy lifting.” A Roman Catholic wedding calls on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and features a priest proffering the “body” and “blood” of Christ during communion.
Although Frances’ husband has zero screen time, his affair is discussed several times. One of Frances’ students (she was once apparently a professor of creative writing) jokingly laments that he never slept with her and asks to give her a French kiss. Frances and Patti talk about baking in the buff.
Patti gets pregnant by artificial insemination and plans to raise the child with her lesbian lover. Interestingly, Salon.com columnist Stephanie Zacharek notes that the film treats her homosexuality as something that “simply is,” a subtle touch that can be more difficult to navigate than outright gay activism. Frances initially traverses Italy as part of a “Gay and Away” tour.
Frances solicits sex from a handsome Italian named Marcello. The camera cuts to them frantically making out and moaning in his bedroom (Frances is clad in her underwear). The next morning she fondles his genitals under the covers and asks what they’re called in Italian. She then retreats to her villa and mimics their coupling on her own bed while shouting, “I’ve still got it!”
A scorpion falls into Frances shirt, causing her to rip it off (audiences see her bra). A rambunctious free spirit named Katherine wears the skimpiest of furs as her bikini-bottomed lover paints her portrait (she also gropes his rear). A nearly naked Polish worker and his equally unclothed Italian squeeze passionately kiss and feel one another up until they’re unceremoniously interrupted. A number of people wear somewhat revealing outfits.
A lightning storm terrifies Frances and destroys her washing machine. While remodeling, manual laborers accidentally bring a wall crashing down. A falling flagpole strikes a man in the head, knocking him to the ground.
One use of the f-word and half-a-dozen uses of the s-word, along with about four other profanities. God’s name is abused about 15 times and Jesus’ once. Frances calls Patti “a tough dyke.”
Alcohol (usually wine and champagne) seems to miraculously appear any time two or more people are gathered together, and many times when they’re not. Frances drinks in solitude during a bout of depression. The landlord at Frances’ apartment complex (where many divorcees reside) tells her that a doctor in the building hands out sleeping pills and that she can help people write suicide notes. One manual laborer smokes constantly. A woman gets drunk and frolics in a fountain.
Under the Tuscan Sun moves along like a sleepy summer’s day in the Italian countryside: Beautiful sights are everywhere and the mood is one of languid relaxation. Lovely shots of Mediterranean coastlines, sprawling rustic villas and sunflower-choked fields (plus the promise of steamy romance) will doubtlessly draw many to explore its sculpted terrain. At its heart, Tuscan Sun is a warm and artful little morality tale that proffers much encouragement and wise counsel to the down-and-out, calling viewers to never give up on life. If only its travel brochure told the whole story. Nods to licentious hookups and homosexuality will leave adventurous—yet discerning—families wishing they’d picked a different destination.