Romantic dramas and comedies are most often about wish fulfillment. They center around a character who is emotionally isolated or down on her luck or what have you, and they fulfill her secret desire to meet someone who changes everything and gives her a happily ever after. And that’s part of what we like about them. Knowing there’s a happy ending can cheer us up on a bad day, make us laugh or smile, and for a little while we can put ourselves in the shoes of someone who, after a short story arc, has everything we want for ourselves.
I really like romantic movies. They do cheer me up. But as a writer and storyteller myself, and someone who is used to the more thorough story arc of a book, I sometimes find them hard to swallow. Which is why I really appreciate movies like Under the Tuscan Sun.
Within the first ten minutes, our main character, Frances, finds out that her husband cheated on her, gets a divorce, and is kicked out of the home she financed. Despair quickly overwhelms her and while looking for a fresh start, she impulsively buys a villa in Italy which she hopes will be the start of a new beginning. So this movie does have some of the usual wish fulfillment tropes. Frances is ultimately looking for love and happiness after her world fell apart. But it also turns her wishes on their head and deliberately calls out the irony of some of the tropes.
Like a genie in a bottle who twists your words, Frances gets everything she asked for – people to cook for, a wedding in her newly renovated villa, and a family to fill it – but nothing specifically for herself. It’s maybe a little sad for a romantic movie, but there’s something very satisfying to it as well. It reminds us to look for happiness in unexpected places and that life isn’t always about romantic love, but also friendship and family, too.
But before all that, Frances recounts the list of all the things she wants to her friend, Martini, the real estate broker who sold her the house and who takes it upon himself to look after her. In reply, he tells her a story.
“Signora, between Austria and Italy there is a section of the Alps called Semmering. It is an impossibly steep, very high part of the mountains. They built a train track over these Alps to connect Vienna and Venice. They built these tracks even before there was a train in existence that could make the trip. They built it because they knew someday, the train would come.”
I think this story is really beautiful and extremely important. Because it isn’t about wish fulfillment as a stroke of luck, but rather a reminder to build yourself up first. You can’t wait for someone else or something to magically make you happy; those are the delusions of a typical romantic movie trope. Instead, you have to build the life you want for yourself. Then and only then will you be ready to receive happiness when it actually reaches you.
Frances took Martini’s advice. She built a life in Italy, bit by bit. There were bad days, but many more good ones, until we get to the very end of the movie where she looks back on her wishes, sees how they were fulfilled, and is satisfied with it. She isn’t jealous that the wedding wasn’t hers. She isn’t sad the family isn’t her own. She smiles. She’s happy. She got everything she really wanted.
And it was more than enough.