The late critic Pauline Kael, influential and irascible, once remarked of a film that "This movie is a toupee made up to look like honest baldness."
The new toupee from France, "I've Loved You So Long" aspires to be high art. It's deadly serious and wrestles with its heady themes unapologetically. Unfortunately the results feel contrived and soft boiled. It wants to jerk a tear and pluck a heartstring, but for a movie to achieve this goal the viewer must care about the players. There's no lack of soulful looks and revelatory chats, but the stale air of despair hangs heavy around the hollow characters, and the film sinks accordingly. By the time the anticlimactic redemption arrives, it's trite and obvious and the movie has already drowned.
An enormous critical success and huge box office hit in France, the appeal of "I've Loved You So Long" is inexplicable to me. Maybe something was lost in the translation. The film plods along at a stupefying pace that numbs any feeling when feeble family secrets are revealed.
Juliette, a mopey Kristin Scott Thomas sans make-up, has just been released from prison after serving 15 years for a crime that's the 500-pound gorilla in the room throughout the film. She is met by her younger sister, Lea, a terminally cheery Elsa Zylberstein, who unexpectedly takes her in to her home even though she's made no effort to visit or write to Juliette for the past 15 years. There she meets Lea's dour and pompous husband and their two adopted Vietnamese children. There's also Grandpapa who, after suffering a stroke, is a bit kooky and unable to speak.
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Lea, who longs to reconnect with Juliette, can only indulge in mindless chatter, avoiding any discussion of "the crime." Juliette, meanwhile, frowns and rarely talks, inadvertently becoming a conduit through which the other characters can speak freely. One of the few lively scenes occurs when Lea throws a dinner party and a particularly obnoxious guest won't quit pestering Juliette about where she's been hiding; she shockingly blurts out her horrible crime, which gives everyone a grand laugh at what a sharp wit Juliette possesses. The only one who sees that she is telling the truth is a professor who used to teach classes at a prison and befriends her.
As the film progresses Juliette is seemingly the only truly "free" person, even though she doesn't realize it. Everyone around her is imprisoned in one way or another and longs to escape.
Lea dotes on Juliette to escape her guilt at abandoning her. Juliette's parole officer longs to escape his depressing job and selfishly talks to Juliette incessantly about his sailing dreams. Even Grandpa rarely leaves his library, escaping into his books. Juliette is a blank slate under a dark cloud, and when the cloud finally bursts it's surprisingly boring rather than heart rending.
What could have been a riveting drama dealing with familial and maternal responsibility among other themes, instead reeks of overripe melodrama. One problem is first-time director Philippe Claudel, an acclaimed novelist in France, who seems to have trouble making the transition from page to screen. The direction is claustrophobic and static; a few sparks suggest that he has potential, and I will look forward to his next effort.
"I've Loved You So Long" is not a bad film, and I feel sure that it will garner some Oscar nominations. Kristin Scott Thomas is a sure bet for a best actress nomination.
The shame of "I've Loved You So Long" is that it could have been a warmblooded moving film, but regretfully only ice water is running through its veins.