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Sadness and loss in I've Loved You So Long

Stranger in the family

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Kristen Scott Thomas and Lise Ségur - PHOTO BY THIERRY VALLETOUX/ SONY CLASSICS
  • Photo by Thierry Valletoux/ Sony Classics
  • Kristen Scott Thomas and Lise Ségur

I've Loved You So Long was postponed at press time; now slated to open Feb. 6

I've Loved You So Long is so engrossing for most of its running time that it doesn't matter much that its final revelation is so unsatisfactory. Not everyone will feel this way, however, and I hasten to add that I won't reveal the ending—although doing so would help me write a fuller review.

Still, in thinking about this otherwise satisfying and moving film, I'm left marveling that I'd been swept along with the compelling, sensitively crafted story, yet the tide of my emotional investment eventually crashed against a development I didn't believe in.

So, if the ending of an otherwise gripping movie fails, does the experience of watching the film cease to exist? In some cases, botched endings reveal bad faith on the part of the filmmakers (this is a particular peril with thrillers). Novelist and first-time filmmaker Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long isn't a thriller, but a realistic drama. As such, it succeeds not on its ending, but in the strength of the characters and the actors who play them.

Claudel's tale tells the story of Juliette Fontaine, an Anglo-French woman who leaves prison after serving 15 years for murdering her 6-year-old son and moves in with the family of Léa, her much younger sister whom she barely knows.

Juliette is played by Kristen Scott Thomas, an actor who was briefly fashionable in the mid-'90s, appearing in such hits of the day as Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient—for which she received an Oscar nomination. (Although she's a native of England, she has lived in France for the majority of her life and has appeared in numerous French films.) Scott Thomas' skeletal beauty was always something of an acquired taste, but here she's perfectly cast as a spiritually shattered ex-con, struggling to reintegrate into society after going to prison for violating a sacred taboo.

But the more difficult role belongs to Elsa Zylberstein, who plays her nervous, worshipful and needy younger sister. We learn that Léa has few recollections of her older sister; she says that, after the crime, she was "brainwashed" by their parents. But she clings to a few memories and is desperate to rediscover the sister she'd lost.

A disorganized, kindly academic whose career is slowly giving way to the demands of raising two small girls, Léa throws herself into helping Juliette with the painful process of adjusting to her new life. Meanwhile, Léa's husband is understandably discomfited by having a convicted child killer near his children; the elder daughter (both girls are adopted Vietnamese), on the other hand, attaches herself to Juliette, who responds warily at first.

Outside of the house, things are difficult for Juliette. She has trouble finding work, and her social interactions are awkward and occasionally humiliating. But ultimately, the film isn't particularly concerned with dramatizing the problems of ex-cons; it's explicitly noted that Juliette has it easier than most, being an educated woman with a middle-class family to look after her.

Instead, the true agenda of I've Loved You So Long seems to be the varieties of adult loneliness. Juliette's probation officer talks about his divorce and has a tragic fixation with the source of the Orinoco River in the Amazon; a seemingly boorish professor, haunted by the death of his wife, courts Juliette; her institutionalized mother is lost to Alzheimer's (Juliette's reunion with her is one of the film's most startling and original scenes).

All of this adds up to a somber, humane movie, one that explores the inevitable—and sometimes wrongheaded or horrific—compromises that the simple fact of being human forces us to make. In the face of its sensitive treatment of adult frailties, regrets and losses, the film's unconvincing ending seems trivial.

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