Sony // 2008 // 117 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 12th, 2009
A story of struggle and salvation.
Films like I've Loved You So Long are increasingly few and far between, and they are to be valued. Here is a film that, above all else, wants us to observe and understand its characters. Movies today (particularly American films) tend to be very cluttered, constantly filling the screen with assorted items that feel like safety nets. If you don't like the main course, perhaps you'll like one of the side dishes. I've Loved You So Long has a great deal of confidence in the strength of the characters and the actors portraying them, and it refuses to allow anything to distract from them. The result is a fascinating character study that feels far more nuanced and personal than most films.
The basic set-up is extremely reminiscent of another 2008 film, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married. In that film, a young woman returned home after a lengthy period of being locked up in a rehab center. The woman attempted to rekindle a relationship with her sister, and also struggled with the memories of a very dark event in her past. In I've Loved You So Long, a middle-aged woman named Juliette Fontaine (Kristen Scott Thomas, Random Hearts) returns home after spending 15 years in prison. She attempts to rekindle a relationship with her kind-hearted younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein, Venus and Apollo), and also attempts to cope with the memories of a horrifying crime she committed years ago.
A lesser film would have found a way to turn this scenario into some sort of mystery or melodramatic exercise in excess, but this film simply desires to observe some of the nuances of human behavior. The film is all about Juliette and the relationships she has with other people; the way they respond and react whenever she happens to be in the room. The film's primary relationship is between Juliette and Lea. There's a nervous unfamiliarity to their early scenes together. Lea did not visit Juliette in prison, and they really don't know each other. They are like strangers attempting to engage in a deep relationship that simply hasn't been formed yet. Lea attempts to compensate for her lack of familiarity and insight by offering Juliette endless kindness, which Juliette accepts with considerable hesitation.
Other interactions are not quite as successful. Lea's husband (Serge Hazanavicius, Bandidos) is civil toward Juliette, but very suspicious of her. He treats her with courtesy, but without any warmth. When he learns one day that Lea has permitted Juliette to babysit their two adopted children, he explodes with anger at Lea's reckless lack of caution. How can she let a criminal look after the children? Others are even more hostile when they learn of Juliette's past. There is a scene with a potential employer who seems very open-minded at first. Prison? No problem. He doesn't judge people. Alas, when he learns the nature of Juliette's crime, he turns into a judgmental monster. Some nervously avoid the very subject of Juliette's past, while others go out of their way to act like they haven't even been thinking about it. Even so, whenever Juliette is around, the same subject is on the mind of everyone around. There is a diabolically gutwrenching sequence in which Juliette visits her Alzheimer-ridden mother, who has forgotten the hatred she has felt towards her daughter over the past 15 years.
Roger Ebert correctly made the observation that I've Loved You So Long is French to its very core, just as Rachel Getting Married was a thoroughly American film. There are numerous scenes here that simply would not work in any other culture or in any other language. Consider the dinner table scene roughly halfway through the film, in which an intellectual at the table whimsically decides to play a game of "let's figure out Juliette's past." In America, such an idea might have been shot down with a sharp, "It's none of your damn business." Here, the game must go on and either be completed or subverted, but it cannot merely be ignored. Not at this table.
Kristen Scott Thomas gives one of her finest performances here, carrying the film with a complexity that I found absolutely fascinating. Rarely has a character simultaneously seemed so hard and so soft. She is obviously bitter and guarded about her years in prison, but there is such a gentle streak in Juliette. She holds her cigarettes with rigid stiffness, and blows the smoke with carefree thoughtfulness. Elsa Zylberstein compliments Scott nicely as the considerably more open Lea, and has several strong moments in which she is given a chance to step into the spotlight (there's a terrific scene in which she discusses literary portraits of murder with her students). I also quite liked the performance of Jean-Claude Arnaud as Lea's mute father-in-law, who spends his days reading books. His eyes say as much as the mouths of most other characters in the film.
The transfer here is rather impressive for a standard-def disc, with surprisingly sharp detail and a pleasantly well-balanced color palette throughout. Black crush is a minor issue here, and there are a few dark scenes that look a bit murky, but otherwise I have no complaints. The audio track is very quiet for the most part, with softly delivered dialogue and a minimum of sound design and music. It's a clean and effective track that is designed to be heard but not noticed. The only extra is a batch of deleted scenes with optional director commentary. You also have the option to watch an English-language version of the film with dubbing from Scott herself, but I can't imagine why you would want to do that.
I've Loved You So Long may not sound like a terribly exciting film, but it is deeply absorbing for the entirety of its 117-minute running time. Those who value strong character studies should definitely consider picking it up. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes