Friday, February 27, 2009

I've Loved You So Long: Love hurts

I've Loved You So Long (2008) • View trailer for I've Loved You So Long
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.27.09
Buy DVD: I've Loved You So Long • Buy Blu-Ray: I've Loved You So Long [Blu-ray]

Writer/director Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long makes an intriguing companion piece to Anne Hathaway's Academy Award-nominated performance in Rachel Getting Married ... but I'm not sure anybody could survive such a double-feature.

Both films deal with the attempt to re-knit the frayed threads of an estranged family, while also exploring the notions of redemption and contrition ... and the guilt carried by those who know they're damaged goods, and haven't yet learned how to forgive themselves.
Michael (Laurent Grévill) pays the aloof Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) a
compliment; she wants to believe him, isn't quite sure she can, but nonetheless
smiles in embarrassment and nervously brushes her hair aside. This film is
filled with small moments, all of which bu ild into a compelling stury of one
woman's struggle to move past her pain.

But whereas Rachel is a straightforward study of a fractured family dynamic during the tempestuous weekend revolving around a wedding celebration, I've Loved You So Long is a much quieter picture, with a mystery at its core, that takes place during a much longer period.

Quieter, perhaps, but no less painful.

We first meet Juliette — Kristin Scott Thomas, her impeccable French once again on display — in an airport waiting lounge. She twitches and smokes nervously, the cigarette held almost like a protective weapon, her wary eyes displaying the terrified uncertainty of a forest creature poised to bolt from an as-yet unseen predator.

Outside, a younger woman (Elsa Zylberstein, as Léa) roars up in her car, aware of being late, and races into the terminal. Even without dialogue, we understand that Léa felt it important to be on time, and worries that her tardiness may have consequences.

The two women meet, their faltering greeting suggesting neither intimacy nor familiarity. We therefore blink upon discovering that they're sisters.

The details emerge slowly; some crucial information literally arrives only as the film concludes, and the screen fades to black.

Juliette has just been released from a 15-year prison term. During that time, Léa has grown from a doting teenage younger sister into an accomplished college professor, wife and mother. The crime for which Juliette was sentenced hangs between them, but remains unspoken; it was, however, horrific enough to have made their parents sever all ties with Juliette, and insist that Léa have no contact with her.

But now, as an adult, Léa has found her own voice and obeyed her conscience; she wants to re-establish the sibling relationship. And so — with the reluctant agreement of her husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) — she has invited Juliette to live with them, for as long as it's necessary to regain her bearings, find a job and resume her place in the world.

Luc isn't happy with the arrangement, but he's willing to accept it ... to a point.

And so Juliette becomes something of a phantom within this otherwise bustling home, particularly during the first few weeks: never quite there, even when standing in plain sight. It's intriguing that Léa and Luc's family includes the latter's father, "Papy Paul" (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who has been rendered mute by a stroke. Even without a voice, Papy Paul is a more vibrant presence than Juliette, who lacks so much more than the power of speech.

We gradually learn, through clipped conversations with ancillary characters — an engaging and sympathetic parole officer (Frédéric Pierrot, a stand-out in a brief role), and an artificially cheerful woman in a job placement agency — that Juliette refused to testify on her own behalf those 15 years ago, and in fact remained stonily silent during the entire trial.

And what, we wonder, was she charged with ... and why?

(If you're observant, you'll figure it out before finally being told.)

We explore the various options, while trying to determine how to deal with Juliette. Is she a monster? Somebody who suffered a bout of temporary insanity? A drug addict or alcoholic who caused some terrible tragedy?

Not knowing — as Léa and Luc's friends don't know, when Juliette reluctantly allows herself to socialize with them — cuts to the core of Claudel's story. We're often too willing to make snap judgments about people, based on surface details, particularly those who've (as in this case) been released from prison.

Luc represents one extreme: suspicious, untrusting, unpleasantly aloof. Léa's at the other end of the spectrum; she wants to think the best of Juliette, obviously basing such hopes on the person her older sister was 15 years ago.

The rest of this narrative's characters fall somewhere in the middle, and Juliette is candid, to a degree, with those who (officially) need to know certain details. With everybody else, she remains an enigma.

But apparently not a monster ... at least we gradually assume as much. Juliette's warmth with Léa and Luc's young daughter, P'tit Lys (Lise Ségur), conveys a depth of emotion: Somewhere beneath the surface of this troubled woman, love waits to bloom again.

For her part, the little girl keeps asking questions that her parents aren't willing to answer, starting with the toughest: Why hasn't she met this "nice auntie" before?

Claudel and cinematographer Jérôme Alméras are unrelenting; the camera spends considerable time on Scott Thomas' face, in tight close-up, almost as if the filmmakers themselves are invading Juliette's privacy. Scott Thomas endures this intimate exposure; indeed, her expressive features reward such scrutiny.

Even without speaking, she conveys a wealth of detail; we sense that Juliette would somehow love to be herself — whatever "self" that is — but fears she cannot, because of everybody else's expectations.

The deliberateness of this tight focus becomes clear as the film progresses, and Claudel's framing technique — initially intended to mirror the claustrophobic prison environment that Juliette just left — gradually gives way to wider angles, as she becomes comfortable with the world.

Zylberstein's performance is equally strong. Léa clearly loves her sister; her kindness is genuine, and not a reflexive urge to atone for her own failure to have visited Juliette more, during those 15 years. Léa wants their new life to be "normal," but she can't be joyful for both of them. Her outwardly false cheerfulness becomes its own mask — Zylberstein conveys this duality quite persuasively — as she struggles to understand Juliette's ongoing refusal to discuss the relevant details.

Laurent Grévill also stands out as Michel, one of Léa's colleagues, and the first to accurately deduce at least a portion of Juliette's secret. Michel also seems drawn to her, out of genuine interest rather than pity; Grévill and Scott Thomas share several tender scenes, particularly early on, when Michel explains his fixation on a particular painting in the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Indeed, Claudel's film is filled with many such quiet interludes: every one of them revealing, and another piece in the mysterious jigsaw of Juliette's emotions, background and sense of self.

Claudel's pacing is deliberate and unhurried; his storytelling approach eschews any "big reveals" ... at least until the climax, when his previously subtle approach becomes almost too expository. But I'll forgive this eleventh-hour nod toward clichéd contrivance, simply because it leads to an absolutely perfect final scene. Scott Thomas places just the right emphasis on Juliette's lingering two-word sentence.

And, as we exit the theater, we'll likely discover that Juliette has given us her tentative, hopeful smile.

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