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I've Loved You So Long
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by Martin Schoo

"A moving study of grief and family bonds"
4 stars

When we first meet Juliette Fontaine, she’s smoking a cigarette. She looks like death, albeit a glamorous reaper. Just released from 15 years in prison, she is a largely silent, distracted presence, pondering resignedly on God knows what. Joy has ebbed from her fine features, and a mask of tobacco smoke hides her from the world she has just re-entered.

She is to live with her sister Lea, Lea’s husband, and their two children, as well as his father. The addition of an ex-con to the household causes understandable tension, and little by little we are fed the reasons for Juliette’s incarceration.

At first, Juliette is reluctant to communicate. She gazes pensively, occasionally firing back a quick answer and a wry smile, as though she’s surprised she can remember what to say. These short stabs of action rouse her from an ever-present grief that is initially difficult to understand. It’s as though she’s slowly waking from a deep sleep; rediscovering the real world, being herself again.

Though it’s Juliette who has been to prison, it is her sister and her brother-in-law who feel the pressure of keeping her secret from friends, associates, and family. This careful middle-class game of keeping up appearances is undercut to great effect in several scenes, most uncomfortably and amusingly at a dinner party where a drunken guest continually hounds the mysterious Juliette about her past.

The film is ambitious in its examination of grand themes such as loss, communication, and the bonds of family. It revolves around the central stillborn relationship between Juliette and Lea, only a teenager when Juliette was incarcerated. Resisting her parents’ attempts at poisoning her against her sister, Lea never truly let go, and this tenacity is reflected in her persistent offers to listen to Juliet’s story, offers which almost turn into a demand for intimacy.

In one early scene the sisters are in a car together, and Lea attempts an open conversation. This sequence neatly sums up their relationship, with Lea’s eyes rarely straying from the road to Juliette’s sad face. Lea finds it difficult to broach her sister’s past without a smokescreen of euphemism and politeness, such is her strong sense of decorum. As sisters, they are ultimately bound, but as individuals they see the world very differently. Hardened by isolation, Juliette has no tolerance for such dishonest niceties, and has perhaps more in common with the uncensored chatter of her sister’s children than any of her contemporaries. She knows well the pain life can serve up, and sees no reason to hide from it anymore.

Slowly, glimpses of charm seep through the cracks of our distracted anti-heroine, as though she can’t help herself. Fragments of her former self bubble to the surface like irrepressible fizz. Initially she is almost a walking corpse following her sister’s every suggestion, completing chores, expressionless and detached. However, through all this her fierce intelligence is still perceptible. A bitter yet listless judge, she knows exactly what’s going on, and what people think of her.

Cutting through the pain, life teases and provokes her, and soon she is engaging with others – strangers, her parole officer, her sister’s children. Reminders of life in all its guises and stages are inescapable – pregnant friends, flirting strangers, casual sex, suicide, loving marriages: all these elements of life parade in front of Juliette in a sometimes overly calculated way. But it is a point worth making – once you’re in the flow of life again, the current takes you with it. It is this transformation that gives the film such strong emotional resonance – and not its disappointing ‘twist’ ending.

The film is not flawless – for example, it is extremely hard to believe anyone would willingly accept such a criminal into their home alongside two young daughters, even if Juliette has ‘done her time’. Also, certain characters (such as the grandfather) are ciphers, representing archetypes useful to the filmmakers’ designs.

But if there are occasional moments of soap opera contrivance and shallow characterisation, at least it can be said that the film is aware of its own artifice. There are several explicit references to the nature of art and literature, and the way in which they reconstruct the world. Key characters time and again refer to art as the way they see and understand the world (Lea is an academic specialising in literature). Through this device, perhaps the filmmakers are explaining away some inconsistencies of their own.

What really anchors the film is the outstanding performance of Kristin Scott Thomas. Though it’s not a flashy role, it does allow her to show a wide range. Like a wounded animal, we see terror, fight and electricity in her eyes - she is at once vulnerable and destructive. For much of the first third you really feel you’re witnessing someone who has completely given up – practically wordless, but a riveting presence nevertheless. And her transformation into the sort of charming, alive woman she must have once been is on a par with that of Anne Elliott’s in Persuasion.

Scott Thomas may not have donned prosthetics, but surely deserves Oscar recognition. If she doesn’t receive it, a major injustice will have been done – not often does someone gain an audience’s sympathy and understanding for such a complex character.

In essence, this is an optimistic film: a paean to the inescapability of life. Grief is part of that experience, but not the only part.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17649&reviewer=423
originally posted: 01/06/09 08:13:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/06/09 Bert Kaplan this is a good, sad, beautiful movie 5 stars
3/16/09 Sevarian Superb acting in a powerful film 5 stars
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  24-Oct-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 03-Mar-2009


  DVD: 03-Mar-2009

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