You thought you would be settling down to watch just another love story: distinguished, older English-speaking man meets younger, sexy European woman while on a trip to Italy, and romance follows predictably. Ostensibly, this is the way the movie begins; and you settle in, waiting for the first kiss, and waiting for the love story to unfold. But it does not unfold at all. Things just get strange and more complicated as the movie progresses. James Miller, a deeply cynical and emotionally cold writer, on a visit to Italy to promote his book, meets a charming French woman who wants to show him rural Tuscany, and to revisit the town where they were hastily married fifteen years ago.
There are differing opinions as to what exactly transpires in this film. Certainly it's open to more than one interpretation. One is that James and the woman (Binoche), although initially not married or even acquainted, "take on" the roles of estranged husband and wife. This interpretation seems very unconvincing to me, since there is no motive as to why they should do this, nor why James should treat this charming and attractive woman in such a shabby way, if they were just playing roles. If they are only playing at being husband and wife, then what is the point of the movie?
After viewing the film several times, it seemed clear to me that they had once been lovers, she had gotten pregnant, they had hastily married, then later separated from one another. The film (mostly) hangs together with this interpretation, but not entirely. There is one spot where James asks the woman "Where (or when) did you get married?", as if he has no idea that he is her husband. Also, James has no memory at all of their wedding night, or where they were married. Nor has he much interest in her young son. And he treats this woman like she is nothing to him. How or why does any man turn down the advances of a woman like this? This, it seems to me, is a movie about James and his deep emotional paralysis, more than about the woman or their marriage.
What we thought would be a gentle love story turns out to be a long, sad look at a disintegrating marriage. What we thought was the beginning of a love affair is really its bitter end. We never learn why there is this deep anger and cynicism in James, what devils haunt him, or what his wife has done to deserve his hateful treatment of her. All we know is that James wants nothing more than to get the hell out of Italy by 9 PM. At the end of the movie one may think or hope that James has finally come around, after his venomous outburst at the restaurant. Has he finally decided to forgive his wife, and give her his love again? It is left to the viewer to decide. Despite all its strangeness, I found the movie and the character of James deeply engaging. This is a long look at a love torn asunder by unknown betrayal; the aching story of a man unwilling to forgive and love.