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‘Sidonie in Japan’ Review: Isabelle Huppert Gets Lost, and Found, in Translation

Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Another version of that, at least based on French writer-director Élise Girard’s latest film, Sidonie in Japan (Sidonie au Japon), could be: All you need to make a movie is Isabelle Huppert wearing chic pantsuits and wandering around lots of picturesque Japanese locations.

That’s a good part of what happens in this sweetly minimalist international romance/ghost story, in which Huppert plays a writer who recalls her past lives while on a book tour through Osaka, Kyoto and a few other intoxicating places during a one-week excursion. Along the way, she strikes up a friendship — and perhaps something more — with her Japanese publisher, a man of few words who watches over her throughout the trip. Oh, and she also sees dead people.

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Premiering in the Venice Days sidebar on the Lido, Girard’s third feature takes some cues from Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and therefore may be too quiet and pared-down to become a major arthouse breakthrough. But it’s also a clever and thoughtful look at a woman finding new purpose at a late age, which could help it appeal to older viewers, especially.

We first meet novelist Sidonie Perceval (Huppert) when she leaves her Paris apartment and arrives at Charles de Gaulle airport to catch a flight to Japan. She’s late and secretly hoping the plane already took off. But it’s been delayed by a good three hours, obliging Sidonie to embark on a voyage she’s reluctant to take, for reasons we eventually discover.

That airport scene and other early moments in Girard’s small-scale affair are marked by bits of sly, offbeat comedy, especially once Sidonie arrives in Osaka and becomes a stranger in a strange land. Accompanied by Kenzo Mizoguchi (the laconic and touching Tsuyoshi Ihara), a lover of French literature who studied at the Sorbonne and runs his own tiny publishing house, she begins a short tour for the rerelease of her first book, L’Ombre Portée (The Carried Shadow), which made her famous back in the 1970s.

Strange things begin to happen to Sidonie while she’s jetlagged at her hotel, and at first blush it looks like some more cases of off-kilter comedy. But during an early interview, she explains how her book — a work of “autofiction” similar to the literature of Margeurite Duras or Annie Ernaux — was written after her parents and brother were killed in a car accident. “Writing is what happens when you have nothing left,” she tells a journalist in the kind of nonchalant, gravely deadpan way that Huppert has pretty much trademarked at this point.

The past has indeed cast a long shadow over Sidonie’s life, and so, when she begins to see the specter of her dead husband (August Diehl) hanging around the hotel, it feels like the recipe for a good horror movie. But the ghost isn’t even mildly haunting, and Sidonie in Japan certainly isn’t The Sixth Sense. Girard, who wrote the script with Maude Ameline and the late Sophie Fillières, gives the supernatural moments a light touch, undercutting the heaviness of what’s happening and turning Sidonie’s predicament into a story of self-discovery.

As the ghost keeps reappearing, Girard gradually focuses on the burgeoning relationship between Sidonie and Kenzo, a man stuck in a long-failed marriage he refuses to deal with, waylaid by past tragedies as well. It takes a lot to get him to open up — though a few glasses of whisky certainly help — and, like Sidonie, Kenzo slowly emerges from his shell as they travel on to Nara and Kyoto, and then to the famous art island of Naoshima, growing closer throughout the week.

The above-mentioned places are all tourist spots, and Girard’s vision of Japan remains strictly, and deliberately, that of an outsider. Working with talented cinematographer Céline Bozon (I Want to Talk About Duras), she frames Sidonie in a series of fixed medium or wide shots, dwarfing her against lush green landscapes, or wood-paneled hotel lobbies and conference rooms. It’s a coolly distant style that undercuts some of the film’s intimacy, and the fact that there’s hardly any score to move things along demands patience on the viewer’s part.

In many an arthouse movie, this kind of withdrawn aesthetic is usually synonymous with a bleak worldview (think Michael Haneke), so what’s rewarding about Sidonie in Japan is how it winds up taking us in another, more hopeful direction. The ghost is not haunting Huppert’s character as much as it’s beckoning her to finally move past her many demons, and perhaps to write another book. Sidonie may be a fish out of water in a foreign country, but she could at last be at home with herself.

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