I saw this movie when I was a lot younger and I was so baffled by its failure to conform to Hollywood narratives I couldn’t explain what it was about, and decided that I liked it just because.
Well, here’s why: because, like in Kiki’s Delivery Service, it is about a woman growing into herself, and it is a beautiful, life-affirming story of finding happiness.
Frances starts the movie quite happy, at a student’s book signing, eating brownies and hanging out with her friend. An author whose book she reviewed poorly tells her (incredible obliquely) that her husband is having an affair, and we cut to a quietly devastated Frances finalizing the divorce with her lawyer. Her husband and his new wife are buying her out of her childhood home. She moves into a short-term furnished apartment in a building that, because it rents short-term furnished apartments, has attracted a multitude of divorcees.
A not-so-short while later, Frances’ best friend, Patti, announces that she and her wife are expecting a baby and are therefore no longer going on a planned tour of Italy. So they have cashed in their two coach tickets to get a first-class ticket for Frances! She resists, but Patti tells her that she’s worried that Frances is in danger of never recovering from the divorce, and so off she goes.
While in Tuscany, Frances catches sight of a gorgeous older woman in beautiful clothing, cuddling a duckling and grinning with childish enthusiasm. Frances’ face is easy to read: “I want to be her,” she is thinking. (I wanted to be her, too.) She spots Frances looking at a real estate ad later:
Katherine: Terrible idea… Don’t you just love those?
So Frances buys it!
The bulk of the movie shows Frances growing into her house and into herself again. There are two bits of recurring symbolism that are fantastic: first, when she has asked her one acquaintance in town to help her chase a snake out of her house, she confesses that she has no idea what she’s doing. My paraphrase:
Frances: I bought a house for a life don’t even have! There are three bedrooms here– what if there’s never anybody to sleep in them? And the kitchen– what if there’s nobody to cook for? Because the thing is, I still want things. I want there to be a wedding, in this house. I want a family to cook for. And children. I don’t want to live all alone in this big house.
Now, this is a great set-up for a typical chick flick romantic comedy. But it isn’t one. The man she tells all this to, they have a moment, standing very, very near each other, and then he goes home to his wife. And she moves on from him. And then there is a very charming man next door who flirts with her outrageously until his wife shows up. And she moves on from him, too. And then she meets a gorgeous man on the street, and they have a one night stand, and they spend months trying to get together again, but he lives far away and they can never quite seem to get it to work, and when she finally arrives unannounced, she discovers he has found someone else in the meantime. And moves on from him too, and goes home to her friends, and her life is not empty without a man in it.
There is a man, at the end, but it’s clear he’s not a True Love Forever kind of man– he’s just cute, and interested in writing, and currently unattached. Maybe he’ll stick, maybe he won’t. But it doesn’t matter, because she’s found her fulfillment in the other parts of her life. She’s had a wedding — her neighbor’s daughter and one of her workmen. And she’s been cooking for her family– all those workmen, and her friends from the town. And there’s even a child– Patti’s wife decided she didn’t want to be a mother after all, and so Patti came to Frances, to Italy, and she and baby Alice are filling up the rooms and the gardens.
Frances finds happiness, but she doesn’t find it in A Man, which is the typical panacea provided in Hollywood. She finds it in connection with others, with this place, with her food, with herself. She becomes more and more like the beautiful woman, Katherine, who seems to have already found the answer to happiness:
Katherine: Never lose your childish innocence. It’s the most important thing.
Katherine deserves a post all to herself, which is coming, but I want to focus on the way that Frances learns to take this advice to heart. Just for contrast, here’s how she is in the beginning, when she has just bought her house:
Frances: Do you know the most surprising thing about divorce? It doesn’t actually kill you. Like a bullet to the heart or a head-on car wreck. It should. When someone you’ve promised to cherish till death do you part says “I never loved you,” it should kill you instantly. You shouldn’t have to wake up day after day after that, trying to understand how in the world you didn’t know. The light just never went on, you know. I must have known, of course, but I was too scared to see the truth. Then fear just makes you so stupid.
Martini: Everybody has that saying.
The cause of her despair is very specific, but as someone who struggles with depression, the feeling of it is very familiar. The detached wonder that you are still alive, when surely such pain ought to kill you… either you turn into “one of those empty-shell people” that Patti warns Frances about at the beginning, or you become…Frances.
And I really want to talk about the faucet, so I will: there is a totally out-of-place faucet in the middle of the wall in the foyer of the villa. And in the beginning, when the whole house seems hostile and frightening, it’s just another thing to bump into, a dusty old thing in the wrong place. But after Frances hires her family of workers, and starts her renovation, and she cooks for them– when she sees them out the door, after a beautiful day of work– it drips. She tries turning the handle, but it won’t work any more than that, but there’s a drip. Hope.
And then she has her marvelous affair with Marcello, and they finish the garden, and Patti comes and the baby is born, and we see that they have hung a bucket from the faucet, because it keeps dripping.
And at the end, as the camera pulls away from the beautiful wedding reception, with Frances in a vibrant orange silk dress, and friends all around (and her new fellow), and the faucet just explodes with crystal-clear water, running across the old tiles and sparking in that perfect, golden five-o-clock light. Honestly, words can’t do it justice, but that imagery stuck with me even from the first time I saw the movie all those years ago, that I had to try to share it.
I’ll talk about Katherine and Patti another time, but for now I wanted to make sure I got down the heart of the movie: that happiness isn’t something you find, it’s something you learn how to do. And it doesn’t come from “the perfect man”– it comes from you, when you are most completely yourself.