Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I've Loved You So Long

It’s been seven years and the French are still trying to live down Amélie. At least that’s what some of the country’s more successful recent imports suggest. I’ve Loved You So Long is the latest in a string of decidedly unsentimental Gallic films (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2 Days in Paris, Dans Paris, Tell No One) that serves as a corrective to the glossy, whimsical Parisian postcards American audiences consistently lap up.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, a middle-aged woman fresh out of prison. She struggles to readjust to civilian life with the help of her altruistic sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) in the sort of high-ceilinged, tastefully appointed home only the French can muster. The movie is no charm offensive—bear in mind Amélie came out in the autumn of the Freedom Fry—but its insightful performances and intimacy compensate for the absence of boulangeries and Eiffel Tower shots.

Writer and director Philippe Claudel moves things along at a pace just above glacial, but that restraint is necessary to appreciate the depths of Thomas’ portrayal. Juliette is first shown in close-up, weary and sans makeup. Lea’s attempts at even the most diminutive small talk are met with painful indifference. Juliette can’t be bothered to ingratiate herself with Lea’s husband Luc (a convincingly hesitant Serge Hazanavicius) or warm to the couple’s adorable daughters. But things gradually change: Juliette picks up a would-be Don Juan at a bar; she visits museums; enjoys swims with Lea and teaches her niece to play the piano. Claudel wisely avoids a lecture on the role prisons or a society play in rehabilitating its criminals. Juliette’s rebirth is inspired by culture, by an outward aesthetic that nonetheless penetrates.

Juliette’s change is a moving thing to watch, but it’s undermined by a bit of manipulation from Claudel. The audience knows from early on that Juliette was doing time for the murder of her young son. But she is so fragile. Her progress is elegant. Her intelligent sister loves and nurtures her. Because we root for Juliette, we wait for the twist we know is coming.

Some critics have said the reveal is a letdown, but I’ve Loved You So Long would not have benefited from a Shyamalian gotcha ending. It’s the structure that is a bit grating; the movie’s psychological depth would not have been compromised had the details of Juliette’s crime been known from the start. As it is, the dramatic ending seems histrionic compared to the subtlety that preceded it.

Still, witnessing Juliette’s thaw makes up for the off-key denouement. There’s a moment when she enters the quiet, darkened house and fears she is once again alone. The relief and gratitude on her face when she finds her surrogate family says it all: she’s come home.

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