In a way, that started to define her image to American audiences — a remote screen presence used by directors trying to impress you rather than move you. But for I’ve Loved You So Long, which smashingly reverses that image, she turned to France, the home country of her husband. And she found a movie that pulsates with the issues of real life as lived by real people — a subject in which contemporary French movies, like A Christmas Tale and the upcoming The Class, seem to excel.
Written and directed by Philippe Claudel, Loved You has taken a long time to open in this market — it’s been playing elsewhere since fall. (At least it’s doing better than A Christmas Tale, which the Esquire and Mariemont so far mystifyingly decline to book despite being one of last year’s best-regarded films.)
Its arrival here was held up in case Scott Thomas received a Best Actress Oscar nomination as Juliette. She didn’t, although she should have. It’s her best lead performance in more than a decade, and coming after she made a noticeable impact in another French film, Tell No One, one must say that country does her well.
Released from prison after 15 years for killing her son, Juliette is not sure she deserves or wants freedom. She is worn and haggard, not interested in either wearing makeup or styling her hair, and plainly seems to have left behind whatever liveliness she once was capable of feeling. A former doctor, she now has no occupation and no immediate family. Her only comfort seems to come from smoking — clearly, as a former doctor, she knows how self-destructive that is.
Her younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), with whom she has long lost contact, takes her in. Not because Juliette wants it, but because Lea feels determined to rekindle a familial connection she needs. Besides being a university literature professor, Lea and her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) have started a family and have two bright, inquisitive daughters, both adopted from Vietnam.
Juliette is unsure if she deserves a second chance, and Scott Thomas effortlessly captures her guarded wariness and weariness toward life on the outside. Luc would rather Juliette leave — he doesn’t trust her around children. Lea is a bit nervous, too.
Part of the film’s success comes from that tension. Claudel doesn’t go out of his way to tell us, and Scott Thomas certainly doesn’t do anything sweepingly melodramatic to show us, that Juliette is now safe. A mainstream American movie with the same plot would have done that early on and then make the focus the discrimination Juliette faces as an ex-con.
The movie lets us see the world through Juliette’s alienated eyes, without itself ever championing alienation as a natural human condition. We watch as she applies for work, guardedly accepting whatever problems her past offers. She seeks solace in talking to Luc’s father (Jean-Claude Arnaud), a mute who reads all day and responds to everyone around him with a comforting Buddha-like smile.
Juliette slowly, cautiously develops contact with others around her. One is a police captain (Frederic Pierrot) supervising her release. He is himself unhappy, seeking common ground with her and revealing personal dreams that seem odd, with good reason.
Another is a professor — a friend of Lea’s played by Laurent Grevill — who perhaps sees a possible romantic connection, perhaps a philosophical one, with Juliette. And there are the children, whose unconditional trust in an “aunt” slowly seems to lighten Juliette’s spirits.
Some scenes play with searing tension, such as when Lea brings Juliette on a country-home getaway with fellow academics. One, high on alcohol, baits her about her past and she reveals she committed a murder. It seems so far removed from his hothouse intellectual environment that he bursts out laughing. As if…
Overall, this is a subtle film with intuitive understanding of human behavior. But it also reveals a twist at the end that, while understandable to make Juliette’s act redeemable in our eyes as an audience, also undermines our investment in the carefully developed dramatic tension up to that point. The acting and dialogue is so good — especially Zylberstein and Scott Thomas — that it doesn’t harm the movie overall, but it does make its premise seem contrived in reflection.
For anyone who likes this, I also recommend a recent if more tragic movie, a British film called Boy A, to see how a similar subject is treated without reliance on melodrama to make the lead character “likeable.” Boy A, by the way, is another excellent art film that hasn’t played first-run here, but the public library carries it. Grade: B
Opens Feb. 13. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.