NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
If a film is really good for most of its length, surely we may forgive a stumble near the end? That depends on the stumble. In this case, I think it almost wrecks the film, going off like a bomb in the story’s logic.
It’s one of those plot developments that changes the meaning of all that came before, undermining what we thought the director was trying to say. And of course I can’t tell you what it is, so there’s not much more to add. Some may reject the movie, perceiving this as a cop-out; others will be held close to the drama by strong feelings of sympathy. In a clever way, this invitation to judge is part of what the film is ultimately about.
Philippe Claudel is a successful French novelist. In his first film as writer and director, he poses the question of whether a woman who has committed a terrible crime can ever be readmitted to normal life without continuing judgment and condemnation from those around her. Can she even allow herself a desire for normalcy, given what she did?
Those are worthwhile questions for a serious drama; the problem is that Claudel’s third act surprise undermines that seriousness, probably because he wants to punish anyone who rushes to quick judgment. There’s a touch of the civic reformer in Claudel, perhaps because he knows the dangers. He taught in a prison for 11 years, like one of the characters in his movie.
You will have heard advance praise for Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance. It’s all true. She is magnificent in this role and she will win many awards. Claudel has perceived the remarkable thing about her – the sense of isolation that no one had quite got to the bottom of. It was there in The English Patient and in Random Hearts, the film she did with Harrison Ford, where both of their characters lost a partner in the same air crash. Here it is like a bottomless well.
She has an ability to hold things back, in a way that is very patrician and English – that particular idea that showing emotion is a weakness and stoicism is character. Scott Thomas has often shown that kind of stiff fortitude but this goes way beyond – across the channel in fact.
Perhaps because she lives in France and speaks perfect French, and because she is playing a French woman, she is able to drain the ego out of it. There is no sense of keeping up appearances or being strong in front of the servants. There are no servants and no one to impress. Juliette has been 15 years in prison and even longer in her own private hell of self-recrimination. The film is partly a beautiful, slow, intimate observation of her coming back to life.
At the house, silent Juliette hesitates on the doorstep, as if unsure she should enter. Lea tries hard to make her welcome. She gives her her own room in this busy home, which is animated by two adopted Vietnamese daughters. Lys (Lise Segur) is about 10, precociously bright and inquisitive; where has this aunty been, she wonders. Emelia (Lily-Rose) is much younger. Exploring the house, Juliette stumbles into the room of an old man who doesn’t speak.
Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud) has had a stroke. He smiles at her with great warmth and serenity, surrounded by his books and memories of life before the war in Poland. Lea is married to his son Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), who has less of his father’s good will. Luc wants to know how long this ex-prisoner will be staying. Lea is desperate to re-establish some connection with the sister who went away when she was barely a teenager. That’s the film’s second main line – the renegotiation of a ruptured family tie.
Claudel’s script is structured as a series of slow reveals. We are not told immediately that Juliette has come from prison and it’s a long time before we discover her crime. He wants us to observe, before we judge. That’s fair enough. Conventional Hollywood scripts tell us too much too soon, a fundamental misuse of the possibilities of storytelling.
Claudel rejects most of modern cinema’s rush to explain. He knows there is a lot to be gained from slowing things down, anchoring the camera, withholding the revelations and just watching as good actors get deep within the reality of their characters. It allows us to connect more with the performances and to think about what we’re seeing.
The film is set, and largely filmed, in Nancy, north-east France, where Claudel grew up. The town is small enough to still have a sense of community and large enough that Juliette can be anonymous when she wants to be. It’s important because it means Juliette can ease herself back into this society slowly, if she wants to. Trouble is, she’s not sure she wants to, or deserves to.
That’s part of the beauty of the role and Scott Thomas’s performance: the sense of unease about becoming part of the social fabric. She feels no right to it. Prison provided her with an appropriate place for self-punishment. What is she to do with a bright and affectionate child who wants her to read a bedtime story?
I’ve Loved You So Long isn’t a perfect movie, thanks to the wrinkle at the end but it is so good for so long that it begs forgiveness. There is great compassion in Claudel’s story of a woman returning from her own living death. Scott Thomas makes us feel the depths from which she’s emerging but also the sense of this woman’s indomitability.