I’ve Loved You So Long - Film Review

Posted on 05. Nov, 2008 by in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist

In typical Hollywood form, the late months of the year bring a glut of releases best described as “Oscar bait” – movies with limited or otherwise nonexistent commercial prospects, touted primarily if not exclusively as efforts destined to attract critical superlatives and emerge from the awards season with statuettes aplenty. And while most of these films’ existence seems predicated largely on opportunities for flashy, self-important melodrama, Philippe Claudel’s Ive Loved You So Long transcends its melancholy subject matter thanks to a terrific, restrained performance from Kristen Scott Thomas which, yes, should earn her some attention when time comes to hand out nominations and then awards. 

Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, the older sister of professor and proud mother Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) who agrees to come home and live with her after being released from prison after a 15-year sentence. Juliette readjusts uneasily to normal life - she finds it difficult to acclimate to the pace of modern society after so many years. Even those who supposedly support her, including Lea’s husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), have doubts about her rehabilitation. Soon, however, Juliette secures a job, begins to make friends, and develops a semblance of a normal life. In the process she reconnects with the events that led to her imprisonment and it forces her to come to terms with her tragic past. 

Thomas has been a formidable screen presence for over a decade thanks to memorable performances in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient, and The Horse Whisperer, but in Ive Loved You So Long she reinvents herself. She is no longer the “female lead” opposite some imminently more bankable male star; she commands the screen here as the films central figure, a woman who cannot contain her deep-rooted melancholy any more than she can express it. Internalizing decades of pain, regret, and resignation, Thomas’ Juliette couches every interaction and expression in the fearful hope her past won’t be discovered, and the actress creates a palpable and moving tension through that restraint. 

Thankfully, first-time director Claudel doesn’t merely build his universe with Thomas as its center and let the rest of his cast orbit her in worshipful support; rather, he populates even the tiniest roles with actors who bring substance and sophistication in order to give his story not only dramatic weight but intellectual depth. Zylberstein gives a particularly touching performance as Lea, but Laurent Grévill (as Michele) provides an oasis of sympathy amidst the rest of the films speculators and judges, and Frédéric Pierrot contributes a tenderly modest turn as the depressed parole officer who helps Juliette re-enter society. 

Again, however, Claudel’s debut is ultimately Thomas’ showcase, and she maximizes the opportunity to exercise her talents even in moments that seem tailor-made for award-ceremony clip reels. All of which means that folks expecting an Oscar bait movie will no doubt be duly satisfied by Ive Loved You So Longs capital-A acting and moving moments of melodrama, but the rest of us will have to settle for a performance, and further, a film that actually deserves those superlatives, whether or not it wins the awards that go with them. (PG-13, opens in NY/LA on 10/24

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