Audrey Wells’ Italian-set drama offers a comforting portrayal on female agency and the multitudes of romance.
The Italian villa that Frances (Diane Lane) bought is in the midst of renovations. She takes stock of its vacant bedrooms, its idle kitchen, the dust obscuring the place’s potential, and becomes quickly overwhelmed by her solitude – wide-eyed, breathless, baffled by her newfound freedom. There’s a vulnerability in the way Frances visibly acclimates to each moment, surprised by the version of herself she meets there. She insists on the space and her role in it, lost in the simplicity of her desire: “I still want things,” she gasps, “I want a wedding in this house, and I want a family in this house.”
Under the Tuscan Sun trails Frances from San Francisco to Italy in the aftermath of a swift divorce. We learn early on of her husband’s affair, given a quick gloss by the film’s late writer, director, and producer, Audrey Wells, who remains largely uninterested in man’s weakness. On a Gay & Away tour of the country offered up by her newly pregnant friend Patti (Sandra Oh), Frances stumbles upon Bramasole, an abandoned villa in the golden hills of Tuscany.
She makes an impulsive offer on the house and hires a crew of Polish immigrants to help with renovations, fellow outcasts who grate against the town’s stark nationalism, which somehow exempts Frances. Her rebirth takes place alongside that of her home, and the privilege and distance of an ocean allows space for reinvention.
This premise follows the typical contours of rom coms that feature white women abroad. In films like Leap Year, The Holiday, and Eat Pray Love, breakups or disappointment serve as the catalyst for a journey (almost always to Europe, more rarely to insulated spaces in the global South). Our heroines tolerate local culture, maintain their distance, and search for fulfilment beyond the relationships that have failed them. Yet somehow, they are pitted against blithe men who contrast their uptight nature, and the unlikely pair clamour their way through the eccentricities of the English countryside.
Redemption comes in the form of love that has only just been sworn off, both by our heroine and by the wounded escort who takes up comparable screen time as her fated love interest. This arc has been reworked by films like Crazy Rich Asians, which trades on class and generational tensions in Singapore, and most recently by The Lost City, where Loretta’s (Sandra Bullock) abduction transforms Alan (Channing Tatum) into both himbo saviour and self-described “damsel in distress.”
The agency extended to Frances’s character nearly twenty years ago, however, stands out in this fraught canon. Maybe my favourite thing about Under the Tuscan Sun is that we never fully see Frances’s ex-husband on screen. We move from the revelation of his infidelity to Frances’s solitary grief, stark against a divorce attorney’s sterile office. There’s never the catharsis of confrontation or a major blow-out scene, only the depth of her hurt. Her ex’s absence implicates all men, in that he could be any man.
Rather than projecting her heartbreak, failures, or hopes onto a former or potential lover, Frances’s longing is directed back at herself through this emphasis on her image. Without the imposition of a constant guide, her desire becomes the catalyst for self-discovery, and its indulgence is teased out as Frances steps into her sexuality. Later, standing on Rome’s cobblestone streets in a velvet dress, she initiates a brief affair with the dreamy Marcello (Raoul Bova) – most important for his resemblance to a young Paul Newman. The film cuts from the couple in bed to Frances back at Bramasole, revelling in her conquest. She clutches her breasts, her hips, shouting, “I still got it.”
It’s in the midst of this triumph that Patti endures her own heartbreak. After her partner Grace (Kate Walsh) abandons her, Patti surprises Frances at Bramasole, devastated and deeply pregnant. The shock of grief becomes universal, another device typically reserved for male love interests in this genre, whose gruffness is revealed to stem from a lost lover. When Patti discovers that she’s disrupted Frances’s plan to visit Marcello, she balks: “I refuse to screw up your love life.” They meet each other’s gaze, holding the other close. “Don’t be ridiculous, Patti,” Frances smiles. “You are my love life.”
Throughout Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances’s villa becomes the default refuge for these characters, bound by their social or romantic displacement. The “family” that Frances pines for is realised in the relationships she stumbled upon and then consciously pursued, outside of any altar-bound intent. This idea of chosen family, which underscores the film, implicitly reads as a queer narrative.
The depth of Frances’s and Patti’s commitment deviates from standard romance in the rom-com abroad; while their friendship is not explicitly queer, their bond creates a site of loving fulfilment, as bell hooks describes in ‘All About Love’. Frances is there with Patti for the birth of her daughter, helping to raise her in their shared home. All the while, she draws closer to her crewmen, wooing them with elaborate meals. They feed one another, read together, and talk through crushes and first loves. It’s a queering of domestic routine, a ritualisation of care over compulsion.
Family and its guarantee of stability and safekeeping is ultimately championed by this genre. It’s the basest form of heteronormative tradition, implying set gender roles and allegiances. But the act of homemaking, without the leisure or resources, afforded Frances, tracks with queer audiences facing rejection from biological relatives. Chosen families have historically served as life-sustaining networks of care for queer and immigrant folks, alternatives to the discriminatory spaces of healthcare, housing, and education. The implications of these bonds have been widely promoted in shows like Pose, and in comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s masterful new special, Rothaniel, he praises these “supplements” while grappling with the need for them.
A kindred potential, for fulfilment outside of a standard spark or prolonged marriage – ideals that are never entirely foreclosed by the film, but clearly muted — resonates in Under the Tuscan Sun. The film’s final scene lingers on Frances in her fully restored villa, where the kitchen is warm and the beds are filled. Her pursuit of an authentic self has led her here, to a home that is built on love for those around her. For Frances, that is a firm enough foundation.