Saturday, October 04, 2008

Review - I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)

I've Loved You So Long is an actors' movie. In his debut film, French writer/director Philippe Claudel displays his ability to tell a story in an intriguing, subtle fashion, but it is the performances he draws from his cast that really makes the picture work. That cast is led by Kristin Scott Thomas, who will undoubtedly receive numerous plaudits for her display here, but it is by no means a one-woman show, and the pleasure of the film lies in watching the way the whole ensemble works together, creating rich characterisations and complex relationships. When first meet Juliette Fontaine (Scott Thomas) she looks pale and drawn, nervously smoking a cigarette as she sits alone in an almost empty cafe. She is waiting for her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein, outstanding) with whom she is going to live for a period of time despite the fact that she hasn't seen her in 15 years, and the reason for that absence, we swiftly learn, is that 15 years was the length of Juliette's jail sentence.

"15 years? You must have done something really serious," a prospective employer tells Juliette; and it's true, she did do something serious, perhaps unforgivable, but I won't reveal what it was. Juliette may have paid her dues in the eyes of the law, but this crime still hangs over her head as she tries to rebuild her life, colouring the perception of others, and making it even harder for her to shake off the past. A job interview ends abruptly when her misdeed is exposed, Léa's husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is unhappy with the idea of this woman living under the same roof as their children, and she must constantly bat away questions from friends of the family, keen to discover where this mysterious woman has been for the last decade and a half. One of those friends is Michel (Laurent Grévill), a colleague of Léa's whom Juliette eventually trusts enough to confide in and slowly build a relationship with, but most of the time she prefers to be alone as she tries to reconnect with the world on her own terms.

Watching Juliette make this journey is fascinating because, as played by Scott Thomas, it's like watching a woman slowly come back to life. At the start of the film she's a shell of a woman who is still living by the rules of prison life; she flinches from human contact, occasionally snapping angrily when she feels like somebody is getting too close. As I've Loved You So Long plays out, we see how she softens and grows in plausible, interesting ways, with Scott Thomas touching on so many tiny details to establish and develop her character, and her relationship with Léa is a touchingly honest portrayal of sisterly love. Claudel shows a real skill for handling characters and group scenes, and I was also convinced by the way the changing attitudes of those around Juliette were written – so much of the film feels natural and true. Claudel isn't much of a visual stylist, and his writing can occasionally be clumsy (Léa is a literature professor, purely so her students can have a long debate about Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment), but he does stage a couple of great scenes, like the uncomfortable dinner party interrogation Juliette suffers, or her fraught reunion with her mother.

Unfortunately, the director can't find the right way to end, and after skipping over a point that seemed to offer a perfectly appropriate conclusion to the picture, he closes instead on a note of cheap melodrama, explaining the reason behind Juliette's crime. It is an explanation that is deeply unnecessary, one that closes off the intriguing sense of ambiguity the film had possessed, and it ensures the film climaxes in a fashion that's tear-stained but too contrived to be emotionally unsatisfying. One of the main reasons Kristin Scott Thomas' performance in I've Loved You So Long is so impressive is that she never looks for the audience's sympathy, and she maintains a sense of mystery about the character's past, which only serves to make her a more interesting proposition. In contrast, Claudel's collapse into convention in the final ten minutes sees him desperately rush to fill in the blanks, and to give the audience closure before the credits roll, but in doing so he dilutes his drama and betrays a lack of faith in his audience. He should know that a happy ending is not a prerequisite, sometimes it's enough for a film to be convincing and thought-provoking, and sometimes the most stimulating part of the cinema experience can come afterwards, when we fill in the blanks for ourselves.