Character studies can be a tricky cinematic business. With plot coming at a premium, filmmakers must be masters of pacing and nuance who keep the audience engaged while dropping subtle clues that pique interest and expose hidden layers of personality. When successful, such movies can have incredible impact and far-reaching resonance; when they falter, they can be tedious, self-indulgent, and just plain dull.
'I've Loved You So Long' falls somewhere in between. First-time director Philippe Claudel (who also wrote the screenplay) takes a leisurely approach, but his sure hand leads us along and teases our senses just enough to keep us in the game. Though the ultimate revelations aren't as shocking and devastating as we expect, Claudel earns our respect by playing fair and steering clear of unnecessary melodrama, and his film's hopeful message and realistic presentation touch us in unexpected ways.
What touches us most, however, is the bravura performance of Kristin Scott Thomas, who files a natural, riveting, and at times heartbreaking portrayal that deserved every accolade it received. From pensive reaction shots and hesitant gestures to blunt remarks and emotional outbursts, she's in full command of a complex character, and her impeccable work both keeps this quiet film afloat and lends it a simple truth that makes its themes universal. It's not often a British actress tackles a French-speaking role, but Thomas is so convincing, she seems like a native Frenchwoman. Even though she has lived in France for more than 20 years and speaks the language fluently, I thought I might initially be distracted by her English roots and detect affected notes in her portrayal. Yet her mannerisms and appearance (she really looks and acts French!) help one forget her ethnicity, and allow her to totally disappear inside the tortured shell of Juliette Fontaine.
Recently released from prison after serving 15 years for murder, Juliette must begin the difficult task of assimilating into normal society. To ease the transition, she moves in with her sympathetic sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein); Léa's husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius); and their two adopted Vietnamese daughters. The situation recalls the strained dynamics Blanche DuBois ignited when she came to live with Stella and Stanley in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' – Léa is protective of Juliette and worries about her stability, while Luc resents the imposition and is suspicious of Juliette's past.
At first almost completely withdrawn, Juliette soon begins to take baby steps toward a normal, productive life. Her icy attitude toward her sister begins to thaw, she develops a relationship with her nieces, receives counsel from a sympathetic parole officer, forges a friendship with one of Léa's male colleagues, and tentatively enters the work force. But the circumstances that inspired the brutal act that haunts Juliette remain a mystery, even to those closest to her, and prevent her from truly connecting with other people.
'I've Loved You So Long' isn't about the deed that defines Juliette in society's eyes, but how she rises above its disapproving glare, picks up the pieces of her shattered life, accepts and overcomes loss, and moves to a more stable and secure emotional place. As a portrait of resilience, it's both inspiring and beautifully constructed. Humor and tenderness lighten the tone, and the natural acting enhances the realistic feel. Thomas and Zylberstein develop a believable sisterly relationship, and their intimate interactions sustain the film even during its draggy middle stages.
Still, 'I've Loved You So Long' doesn't have enough meat to really stick to our ribs. I found the film interesting enough as I watched it, but nothing about it clung to me after it finished. Thomas is often mesmerizing, and lifts the movie to a level it might not otherwise have achieved, but the stilted rhythm, lack of plot, and delicate treatment keep it, like its main character, distant and detached. In the end, Claudel's film makes a solid impression, but it's just not memorable.
This is a good, by-the-book 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer that accurately represents the source material, but there's nothing about it that really stands out. The clear, well-defined image nicely reflects the muted color palette, and balanced contrast provides just enough vibrancy to give the picture some life without detracting from the somber feelings often pervading the story. Close-ups of Thomas are lovely, even when she's sans make-up, but there's no breathtaking power to the clarity. Textures show up well, fleshtones are accurate, and blacks are deep enough. Though I noticed a moment or two of edge enhancement, it's nothing serious and certainly won't inhibit enjoyment of the film.
This is one of those transfers that gets the job done with a minimum of flash. There's not a lot to praise, and little to snipe about. For a small film, it's a good effort.
The French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is much the same. There aren't many opportunities for the audio to make a statement, but what's there is well presented. In a French language track, we don't need to understand the dialogue, but it does need to be clear and appropriately prioritized, and it is here. The music provides a subtle underscore to the action, but never really swells enough to be evaluated for depth or range. Surround action is very tough to detect, and the subwoofer takes a vacation. This is a front channel movie with a minimum of separation, but the sound is pleasing and suits the film's aura.
If you'd like to watch 'I've Loved You So Long' dubbed in English, the track is also encoded in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and features the voice of Kristin Scott Thomas.
Sony doesn't give much love to 'I've Loved You So Long,' offering up just a few deleted scenes and a bushel of trailers. Considering the film's foreign roots, the lack of extras is not surprising, but an interview with Thomas would have been a nice bonus.
Probing, well acted, and thoughtfully directed, 'I've Loved You So Long' paints a frank portrait of sorrow and resilience, and features a stunning performance from Kristin Scott Thomas. Philippe Claudel's quiet film doesn't pack the expected punch and occasionally misses its mark, but those who enjoy subtle, introspective character studies will find much to like. Although I appreciated the fine portrayals, the movie as a whole didn't move me like I thought it would. Sony provides solid if unspectacular video and audio transfers, but doesn't muster up much in the way of extras. This is definitely worth a rental, but its appeal will likely be limited.