Thursday, October 30, 2008
Kristen Scott Thomas is turning into a far more interesting actress than I ever thought she would be. I first noticed her when she did "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "The English Patient" because those films were such hits. She was good in those films, but not particularly interesting. Yet now that she's in her late 40s, she is taking on more interesting roles in foreign films -- not unlike what fellow British actress Charlotte Rampling has done. This year she had a supporting role in the thriller "Tell No One" and she has a starring role in "I've Loved You So Long."
"I've Loved You So Long" (which takes its title from a lyric in a song) involves two sisters who haven't seen each other in 15 years. Juliette (Kristen Scott Thomas) is waiting at the airport. Her younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), is running late. Juliette seems tired and worn and we come to find that she has been serving 15 years in prison for murder. She has agreed to move in with her sister who is married to Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), busy with a job, raising two adopted Vietnamese daughters and and looking after Luc's mute father (Jean-Claude Arnaud). Juliette keeps very much to herself, but her quiet presence causes stress. The reason, we discover about a third of the way into the film, is that Juliette was imprisoned for killing her own 6-year-old son.
This first feature by screenwriter Philippe Claudel has a fascinating premise. How do you make viewers care about a woman who has killed her own son? Claudel lets information slowly trickle out and we do find it difficult to imagine that this reserved, emotionally cool woman could have been motivated to kill her young child. Her re-introduction to society proves compelling as she has to deal with employers who are appalled by her crime and new acquaintances that keep inquiring about where she's been for the past 15 years. The film is about rediscovering family ties and trying to readjust to what seems a very foreign world. And it's not just Juliette who's adjusting; Lea has been deeply impacted by her sister's circumstances and must come to terms with her feelings.
Scott Thomas delivers a quietly effective performance that doesn't give away much about her character. She keeps everything in and harbors dark secrets that she's unwilling to share. Scenes of her applying for work are nicely handled as we see how difficult a process that can be. Scott Thomas doesn't allow Juliette to wallow in any self-pity. She seems to have come to terms with her guilt and even has a survived with a bit of ironic humor intact. She plays well off Zylberstein's Lea, and the relationship between the two of them forms the backbone of the film.
Unfortunately, the film falters badly in the final act as we discover all the details of the murder in a rather contrived and melodramatic confrontation between the sisters. The earlier subtlety of the film is replaced by heavy-handed emotions and overplayed scenes. In some ways, the film was better when we knew less about Juliette. The ambiguity surrounding her crime made the film more interesting.
"I've Loved You So Long" (in French with English subtitles and rated PG-13 for thematic material and smoking) begins well, but concludes badly. However, it makes something of an interesting companion piece to "Changeling" in which you have a devoted mother in search of her lost son. But both films prove to be portraits of very different kinds of maternal devotion.
Companion viewing: "Changeling," "The Woodsman," "Medea"