Kristin Scott Thomas ("The English Patient") has a hard look, a cool edginess that can send a chill down your spine if you happen to be a kid and she walks in and announces, "I'm your new nanny." And that's almost what happens in "I've Loved You So Long" (2008), a Belgian film in French, with English subtitles.
Scott Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, a former doctor who spent 15 years in prison and now feels lost in the larger world. Philippe Claudel, in his directorial debut, gives us a tautly constructed character study that tries awfully hard not to reveal too much information too soon. But I think that the writer-director could have protected the ending a little better had he given us the information in a different order.
We know, for example, fairly early into the film that Juliette was a doctor in her civilian life, and in equally short order we learn that she was convicted of murder. I won't reveal the third element, but I will argue that if Claudel would have withheld that Juliette had been a physician until a scene called for it late in the second act, the film would have retained more of its mystery. As it is, anyone capable of doing one-fifth of The New York Times crossword puzzle will have figured out the film's secrets and surprises (save one) by mid-point. But maybe that's unimportant. This is, after all, a character study, and to Claudel's credit it's not just Juliette who's under the microscope. It's also Juliette's younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who teaches college and takes her in. And Lea's skeptical lexicographer husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), as well as Juliette's probation officer (Frédéric Pierrot) and a colleague of Lea's (Laurent Grévill) who develops a romantic interest in Juliette. Quietly, almost covertly, this film explores what it means to care about others . . . and more interestingly, what it takes for them to let you.
"I've Loved You So Long" was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe Award, and Scott Thomas was also nominated for Best Actress. Though the plot itself is a short hike from point A to point B, it's the depth of character and small details that make the film work as well as it does. It was brilliant, for example, that Claudel inserted Luc's father into the household before Juliette was invited to stay with them after a prison social worker contacted them. Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud) is also a social refugee, taken in because a stroke left him unable to speak and do much more than eat, drink, and read all day. He provides a nice reminder of the insular way that Juliette feels, though surrounded by family, and way to explore more subtly, in echo fashion, the film's themes and observations about human nature. Juliette has character echo in her probation officer, too, who feels more cut off from his child after a divorce than he's willing to admit.
Another thing that Claudel does well is to insert people and everyday life in such a way that we believe it's a genuine slice. Typical of so many European filmmakers, he doesn't let a scene go on too long, and he fights off the peculiarly American impulse to achieve symmetry or tie up loose ends. There are plenty of short piers off of which viewers are invited to take long walks in order to contemplate some pretty deep philosophical issues, and this film gives you the space to actually think. His handling of children is also praiseworthy. Viewers feel a warmth toward the precocious Vietnamese orphans that Lea and Luc adopted, but "precocious" never becomes "precious." Though P'tit Lys (Lise Ségur) is given a lot of air time, Claudel coaxes a performance out of her that finds a tenable middle ground. In fact, you could say that about so many things related to this film. It's a movie about middles and in-betweens, whether it's life-or-death, love-or-hate, fear-or-comfort, or contact-or-isolation.
"I've Loved You So Long" is a slow-moving film, and at 117 minutes it's deliberately so. But stellar performances by Scott Thomas, Zylberstein and others, as well as sensible direction and intimate cinematography, make it a rewarding two hours.
Sony went with an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a BD-50 on this title, and if you want to see the difference between Hi-Def and standard definition just have a look at the seven deleted scenes. Though there's a slight big of grain and you don't get the kind of 3-D pop you sometimes do with Blu-ray, the colors are natural, and the level of detail holds up well under the scrutiny of all Claudel's considerable amount of close-ups. "I've Loved You So Long" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a French or dubbed English Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Scott Thomas's first language is English, and so she does her own dub work, but you lose the other voices, and for me it's a no-brainer to watch in the original French with English subtitles. It's a slow-enough moving film that you can read the tiles and also appreciate the nuances of the visual scene without much trouble. This is a film that's mostly dialogue, but the rear speakers get a surprising amount of action for such a quiet film. There's so much ambient noise that comes from behind that I often found myself wondering if someone was at my door or if the kids were getting into mischief upstairs. And yet it didn't feel artificial. That's because the mix is superb, and the sounds project far from the speakers rather than lingering too close like early morning fog on the ground.
Surprisingly, there are just those seven deleted (including one alternate) scenes in standard def, playable with optional commentary by the director, and that's it for bonus features. Odd, considering that this is Kristin Scott Thomas's most accomplished performance, and that Zylberstein holds her own. Odd, too, considering that the director comes from an academic background (Professor of Literature at the University of Lyon). As is, the seven scenes just seem like a cruel tease.
Anyone interested in recovery knows that it's a long and often painful road. So is redemption, or acceptance. Or any process, really, that involves two human beings and the feelings that define us, keep us apart, or bring us together. These are the kind of things that interest director Philippe Claudel, and the first-time filmmaker does a wonderful job of presenting such complexities within a framework so simple that it could qualify as a fable.