I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) dir. Philippe Claudel
Starring: Kristin Scott, Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill
Much acclaim has been heaped on this dreary French melodrama and Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance en Français. And yet, from almost its first moments to its last I felt manipulated with false drama and contrived plotting. Warning SPOILERS contained in this review.
Ms. Scott-Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine who has just been released from prison and picked up by her much younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein). The drive home is awkward, Else hasn’t seen her sister since before she went to prison, and probing questions reveal a sense of shame because of it. The heinous crime is not revealed until later, but we know it was a heinous murder of some kind.
We watch as Juliette tries to adapt back into society. She gets a job, courts a man and continues to struggle with the pain of the event 15 years ago, which we eventually learn is perhaps the most heinous of crimes, the murder of her own son.
The quiet moments of reflection remind me of the tone of silent anguish and regret Tom McCarthy uses in “The Visitor”. But on closer examination there’s very little honesty in the storytelling. Writer/Director Philippe Claudel destroys all logic of the situations in order to pound us with dramatic plot and information reveals. For example, Juliette’s first dinner conversation with Lea’s family lacks any logic. Lea’s precocious little girls probe Aunt Juliette for answers to why she hadn’t heard of her until now. The parents are surprised by the question and scramble to find palatable answer. It provides some cinematic conflict, but I could only ask, ‘why would Lea not anticipate this and calculate a story beforehand?’ That first night Lea’s husband objects to Juliette staying in the house causing a disruptive conflict. Really? They’re having that discussion now?
Towards the end Claudel gives us a dramatic reveal of the events which led to the crime. I must expose some plot in order to discuss this. So beware SPOILERS ahead. Claudel reveals to us that Juliette’s son had a terminal disease, and her murderous act was actually meant to save him from the pain of his disease. Except she didn’t tell anybody about this and thus accepted the 15 year sentence without objection. This would appear to negate the entire point of the film- that is, the family coming to grips and foregiving Juliette’s heinous act. With Juliette off the hook all it becomes very easy for everyone to live together in harmony.
Without accepting these plot contrivances, it’s difficult to appreciate Kristin Scott-Thomas' performance fully, but I don’t disagree with her exclusion from the Oscar nominations. The conscious attempt to underplay the emotion which we expect would gush with rivers of tear feels just as unnatural and distracting as going over-the-top.
I appear to be the only one with this reaction, so perhaps I'm out to lunch - but buyer beware.
"I've Loved You So Long" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment