I was loving it for so long
I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Philippe Claudel, France, 2008, 6)
That grade is misleading. This was nine-tenths of a terrific movie, comfortable 8-grade territory, until the last plot point completely took back and actively undercut what the first nine-tenths of the movie had been about. If you walk out … when Kristin Scott Thomas is making a bed, you’ll think you walked out of a year’s best contender.
Scott Thomas deserves the awards buzz that’s already netted her a Golden Globe nod, though obviously it helps if you’re gonna be in a French movie to be a well-known Anglophone actress as well.¹ But what makes her performance great is that she’s obviously in “deglamorizing” mode, but she does this without coming across as simply trying to look intentionally ugly (think, Charlize Theron in MONSTER). It’s how this character Juliette looks, a thoroughgoing plainness, the result of 15 years in jail and getting used to not being made-up. KST also simply and completely *inhabited* a newly-freed inmate in a score of ways — her standoffish body language and her conversation style. She answers questions, but little small talk and not speaking unless spoken to, and keeping her own counsel: all prison survival norms of keep-your-head-down and don’t-lag-to-the-screws.
Similarly, there’s a scene where Juliette picks up a man at a bar, goes to bed with him, and he asks “was it good?” “No, not at all, but it doesn’t matter,” she says, without acting “Glum,” just sorta slightly tickled but not really ecstatic. It’s the preciseness of the playing and how it matches the sensibility of the character and the film that is so drably magical, if that makes any sense. Like how Bogart held his arms in THE PETRIFIED FOREST, only much subtler, KST’s performance deserves to be anthologized for its mastery of the body language of a prisoner.
But also very good in a much-less-showy role (that will of course be ignored) is Elsa Zylberstein, as the sister Lea to whom Juliette is released, whom she hardly knew but is the only family she has. She’s conventionally happier, almost Poppy-like compared to Juliette, curious to expand her knowledge of the crime which leads her to push while consciously knowing when not to push. There’s also a two-scene character, hardly significant dramatically, of a post-release job-placement officer. What struck me is that the actress in question must weigh more than 300 pounds, perhaps 400. But she won the role and plays it competently and professionally, without her freakish physical appearance coming off as a stunt or even as much as an onscreen word.
Director Claudel is a novelist and it kinda shows here — in both good and bad ways. The script’s structure and parsing is superb — the details are parceled out at the exact moments they should be. At every moment I had a doubt about the film, it assuaged my objection. For example, early on after the first scene of Juliette with Lea’s family, which includes adopted children of about 8 and 5, I have written in my notes “doesn’t the kid realize KST’s catatonic.” In the very next scene, I note, the elder child asks her mother “isn’t Auntie a bit strange.” There’s another scene where one of Lea’s children injures herself, and Juliette quickly and instinctively acts in a way that shows she has medical knowledge far beyond what she’s shown. In a lesser movie, that would have “tripped her up” and resulted in the exposure of her real past life, etc.
There’s the right range of moments. I’VE LOVED YOU is basically about the difficulty an inmate has reintegrating into society, especially given her crime, which people respond to very differently when they learn it. The film is a series of one-step-forward, one-step-back moments, of Juliette learning to respond to the love of others, and others to her, in various ways, in ignorance and in knowledge, in seriousness and in irony. This is also the source of its principal weakness until the very end — that the film is very episodic and the scenes, good as they generally are, sometimes feel truncated and “accumulate” more than they “build.” There’s a nod to Eric Rohmer, and the film has some of his phlegmatic quality but without the mixing-in of a dry sense of humor — the alchemy that makes Rohmer a master.
But these are minor quibbles … I’VE LOVED YOU A LONG TIME is so good for so long that I was spitting at the screen at the end, for how the film completely made a wrong turn, the describing of which requires major spoilitude. It’s not simply a failed or unsuccessful scene, but a chickenshit copout that took back everything the film had been about. And logically ludakris to boot.
MAJOR SPOILERS COMMENCE … you have been warned
Juliette had served 15 years for killing her 6-year-old son — that’s established (as is Lea’s always-held knowledge) before the movie’s even a third-over. But then the last scene pulls the supposed “final reveal.” While making her bed in Lea’s house, Juliette lets drop on the floor from under her pillow a piece of paper that indicates that her 6-year-old son had been dying of what sounded like the late symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease when his mother injected him with a fatal drug.
Is it believable that any evidence of such an important secret would be kept in such an accessible place around someone from whom its being kept secret matters? And then go unnoticed by Juliette for days? Is it believable that this would not have been in the trial record (i.e., be unknown to Lea)? Is it believable that a mother who killed her son under those circumstances, in this day and age, would not have pleaded something at the trial? Is it believable that she would have received a life sentence (practically required to wind up serving 15 years in Europe)?
But even apart from all that, why exculpate Juliette at all? And understand that changing her from a murderer to Mama Kevorkian does exactly that in this day and age. Which is a complete copout. Understand my objection, for here and now, is not purely-moral but dramatically-moral. Frankly, I didn’t want an ending (in the explain-why-she-killed-the-son sense) at all because LOVED had been about completely different matters — integration into family and society, the difficulties of giving and accepting love. Did Claudel and Scott Thomas not trust what they already had about matters that are identical for “bad” criminals as “blameless” ones or martyrs?
One thing Roger Ebert frequently said about the difference between French movies and American movies is that French movies are made for adults and treat their audience like adults, while American movies don’t). That’s an oversimplification obviously, but true enough in the main as a generalization. This film betrays that because turning Juliette’s crime from murder from mercy-killing is treating the audience like moral infants. In an anti-death-penalty movie, making the condemned man innocent is cheating; this movie’s travesty of an ending is too.
¹ Still, it was obvious even to me that her French has a pronounced English accent.