Friday, November 28, 2008

I've Loved You So Long (***1/2)

Ill y a longtemps que je t'aime
Written and Directed by Phillipe Claudel


When we think of the great premiere films from directors, our minds automatically go to Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, Blood Simple for the Coen Brothers, and most recently Michael Clayton for Tony Gilroy. You can add I've Loved You So Long to that list, for the budding new French filmmaker Phillipe Claudel. Not only does the film boast exceptional cinematic skill unseen in most rookies, but it also holds a handful of iconic performances in the most emotionally bare film released so far this year.

We are introduced to Juliette (Kristen Scott-Thomas) as she sits at the airport, a cigarette is glued between her fingers. Her expression is automatically one of a woman who is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) races into the terminal, and spots her. They have not seen each other in over fifteen years, but now, Lea is forced to give Juliette a place to stay. Lea is overjoyed to be with her sister after so long, but is still a bit timid, and fears the unknown. The truth is, she barely knows this Juliette; the one that had vanished for so long.

Lea's two adopted daughters are excited to live with their new aunt, ready to indulge Juliette in playing piano and tours of their rooms. But Juliette is reserved, finding life reinstated to the family harder to adjust to, after being away from it for so long. Lea's husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is bothered by Juliette's presence--why should his home have to house this mysterious, and introverted woman? Through various meetings and off-hand comments, we learn where Juliette has been this whole time: in prison--for murder.

Slowly, but surely, Juliette begins to adjust to living with her sister's family. She gets along with her parole officer (Frederic Pierrot), who introduces his own personal problems in their in-depth conversations. She meets Michel (Laurent Grevill), one of Lea's co-workers, and is sucked in by his sense of humor, and romantic intellect. Life is starting to come back to normal, but as more and more details are revealed about her heinous crime, the more and more she is faced with her own life decisions. With Lea trying to help her sister come to grips with her tormented soul, Juliette debates whether or not she is willing to go through the pain true closure can bring.

I absolutely love the way this film unveils its intentions piece by piece. We are never told a piece of information at the wrong time, and there is never a moment when a character reveals something that seems insincere. The film moves at an intentional novel-like pace, which may put some on edge, but is the perfect way to tell this story. Few filmmakers would trust this technique (it's one of the most unpopular among audiences), but what is probably more surprising is that this bold decision was made by a filmmaker on his first film. Few would have been as brave as Claudel, in sacrificing audience convenience for austere narrative structure.

But lets not forget those wonderful performances. Scott-Thomas gives what is probably the greatest performance of her uneven career. Her Juliette is a character filled to the brim with caged demons, its amazing she was able to pull this off with such delicacy. She's a straight powder-keg of emotion, with the pain of the whole world sitting in her strained eyes--even her smiles seem fractured. Scott-Thomas has seemed to me, to always be an actress who depended on her radiance, but that is certainly not the case here, where she wears nothing but muted colors and allows the character to be completely de-glammed.

Popular in French cinema, but nearly unheard of in America, Zylberstein gives a wonderful supporting turn as Lea, the supportive, but persistant sister. She has to hold back a lot of frustration and a lot of dismay in order to retain her status as the cornerstone of that family. Both Pierrot and Grevill are pleasant in their smaller, more light-hearted roles, but most importantly, they add even more depth to Juliette, who uses them both to figure out how she will succeed in her reconstructed life. It's a successful ensemble, which I also credit to Claudel, who in addition to his superior use of visual motif, shows that he has talent handling actors as well.

I've Loved You So Long is a movie that is equally devastating and gratifying. The brilliance of Juliette's character arc is what guides the film, and the combination of Claudel's intelligent, self-disciplined directing, and Scott-Thomas's ethereal, understated portrayal brings it to its full fruition. I know that I'm biased toward small, personal films which depend more on character than plot, so this is the kind of movie that is tailor-made for someone like me. It is not a film that is well-defined by genre, because the power behind storytelling as exceptional as this is universal.

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