Kristin Scott Thomas Tentatively Re-Enters Society In This Compelling French Drama
There's a reason French novelist Philippe Claudel cast Kristin Scott Thomas as the protagonist in his debut as a director, I've Loved You So Long, and it's not because the British actress speaks flawless French. It's because filmgoers have an indelible memory of Thomas's perfect cheekbones and mesmerizing eyes in such movies as Gosford Park, The English Patient, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And it's that memory that makes her initial appearance in this movie so startling.
She sits in an airport terminal, smoking a cigarette, without make-up, without a flicker of interest in anything around her. She's unsettling not so much because she looks lost as because she doesn't even care that she's lost. And because we remember when Thomas was lively and lovely, it's as if we remember when her character was a vibrant beauty, even though we've just met Juliette.
Claudel's screenplay is so devoted to realism that information dribbles out slowly. Only gradually do we realize that Juliette has just spent 15 years in prison and that the woman who picks Juliette up at the airport is her younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who is careful not to tell her friends or her two adopted daughters too much about Juliette. This stingy European naturalism can try the patience of audiences accustomed to the information-rich storytelling of conventional American pictures, but it eventually produces a catharsis all the more powerful for being so well earned.
As Juliette looks for a job and shares meals with Lea's family and friends, it's clear that this is a story of reentering society. It's a very different take on this familiar tale, though, because there's no evidence that Juliette wants to find a place in the world. It's not that she pushes people away or runs from them; it's that she doesn't respond to them. She doesn't expect forgiveness for her crime, and she isn't going to apologize or explain.
In one astonishing scene, while interviewing for a secretarial job at a factory, she matter-of-factly discloses to the owner why she was in prison: She murdered her six-year-old son. He erupts in outrage, calling her a "monster" and throwing her off the premises. Juliette calmly collects her things and strolls out, as if this were just what she was expecting. She has locked up her feelings for so long that nothing can get to her now.
But this is not just Juliette's story; it's also the story of Lea, the much younger sister. Lea is intimidated by Juliette's severe reserve but desperately wants to know what happened with her son and to reestablish contact with her. Lea wants this so badly that she disregards her husband Luc's reasonable doubts and invites Juliette to live with them and their two Vietnamese daughters. Zylberstein is shorter, plainer, and less poised than Thomas, but she is totally engaged with the world--she reacts to every person she meets with an emotion telegraphed across her narrow face. And she proves indefatigable; every time she's rebuffed by her sister, she tries another angle.
There's never a big breakthrough as there would be in a more predictable movie, but there are dozens of small fissures in Juliette's wall that slowly widen into gaps large enough to allow some light through. Lea gets crucial help from her 8-year-old daughter P'tit Lys (Lise Ségur), and from her faculty colleague Michel (Laurent Grevill), who shows unusual patience in his infatuation with Juliette.
Above all, Juliette's resistance is dissolved by the French habit of gathering for large dinners--both indoors and out--where friends linger for conversation and never dash off to watch TV. These dinners satisfy the fantasy needs of American art-film audiences in the same way that cum shots satisfy porn audiences.
Claudel's one stumble in this otherwise superb movie is a big confession where Juliette addresses her son's murder. The explanation is too tidy, too softening, and ultimately unnecessary, and the movie was better when we had to guess at the dark region of Juliette's memory.
I've Loved You So Long is powerful enough as the tale of an isolated person rejoining the wider world. Each step of that journey is taken so slowly and with such difficulty that you're surprised to realize how much ground has been covered by the end. You're surprised that Juliette has started wearing make-up again. The dialogue never refers to it and she applies it quite minimally, but the color has returned to her face and she looks like the Kristin Scott Thomas we once knew, the older sister Lea once knew.