While We Were Here

The honeymoon’s over

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Between the architectural pillars of Renaissance Italy and Kate Bosworth, director Kat Coiro hangs a gossamer tale of ruined love and liberation with While We Were Here. An homage to neorealism, the French New Wave and the cinematic power of faces, as well as a lark of sorts for Coiro and Bosworth after their collaboration on Life Happens, this black-and-white, anti-romantic feature might also be seen as a retort to that earlier film.

An antipasto platter of film references, While We Were Here bends the conventions of its various inspirations, which include De Sica, Rossellini, Roman Holiday, and (although the central location is Naples) Godard, because Bosworth so strongly evokes Jean Seberg in Breathless. Bosworth’s Jane—a troublingly thin, visibly depressed American tourist—has arrived in Italy with her husband, Leonard (Iddo Goldberg), a classical viola player in town for concert rehearsals. There are no overt hostilities between the two, but there’s no evident love, either.

Jane is a writer who has long struggled with a project she can’t quite wrap her head around: Through her ever-present headphones, she listens to hours of interviews she conducted with her English grandmother, whose recollections of having lived through two world wars, Jane hopes, will provide the inspiration for a book. As Jane’s grandma, Claire Bloom delivers a vocal performance so deft that her character seems to take palpable form, her words arriving at perfect intervals throughout the film.

The film is initially shot with what seems to be an unnecessarily wide lens, and a jagged palette of shadows and light that are meant to reflect Jane’s psychological conflict. It comes to light that she’s had a miscarriage, an essential part of this portrait that nonetheless feels like a too-easy device. And as American movie women tend to do when visiting Italy, Jane experiences a sensual awakening.

Contrary to expectations, said arousal is provided not by an Italian but by a footloose 19-year-old American, Caleb (Jamie Blackley), who is a bit taken with himself but amuses the 30ish Jane, especially when he tells her viola jokes. The flaw here is that any wife of a professional viola player would have heard them all before.

While Caleb never becomes a figure of crucial significance, he does throw Jane’s marital problems into high relief. Leonard exhibits all the signs of being out of love: He doesn’t really listen, and he responds wearily when Jane attempts conversational intimacy. During sex, when Jane asks him, “Is there anything you want?” he responds, “Just you, Jane.” What Jane herself wants isn’t sex, or even love, but spontaneity, which Caleb provides.

Coiro’s script provides all manner of understated clues as to Jane’s problems and resolutions, while lenser Chamberlain delivers a portrait in light that is not exactly understated—Bosworth blossoms gloriously as Jane finds her erotic footing—but is precise and moving, much like the film itself. While We Were Here does have a hint of Chanel advertising about it, and one sequence of Jane and Caleb romping about the island of Ischia seems almost a parody of love-in-bloom moments, but the emotions feel otherwise genuine.

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