Even if you don't know the gist of I've Loved You So Long prior to seeing it, writer/director Philipe Claudel wastes little time laying things out for the viewer. Juliette was in prison for fifteen years after being convicted of the murder of her six-year old son. Nobody knows why she killed him. Not her sister, not her parents, not even her lawyer. We learn from a social worker that Juliette remained silent during the trial. This dangling secret and overhanging mystery of how?, when?, where?, and - most importantly -why? aren't resolved until the film's final five minutes, making I've Loved You So Long a sort of bizarre cliffhanger/character study that hinges on... the killing of a child???
Yes. That's a pretty twisted hook for an art house entertainment film to run on, but Claudel isn't a director with cruel intentions, just one with poor judgment and a misguided approach to exploring social ethics. Once we've been made aware of Juliette's crime, Claudel intentionally places her in situations that put us on edge: alone in a room with her six-year old niece (where she verbally loses her temper over a poem); sitting next to her niece at the piano, secretly teaching her how to play; hovering over her niece after she's fallen asleep. No, Claudel doesn't lay on a The Hand that Rocks The Cradle suspense soundtrack in order to manipulate, but the intention is clear. Also, the fact that Kristen Scott Thomas plays the role with a modest and mostly zipped-mouth straight face for 117 minutes just adds to the anxiety.
For her part, Thomas does a fine job of portraying a woman that's held her tongue for fifteen years on the facts about her sons death. But, again, - and this isn't Thomas' fault - I'm left scratching heads (my own, my cats', and anyone elses head nearby...) over why this performance gets lauded and adorned with nominations while other 2008 performances by Juliette Binoche, Melonie Diaz, and Amy Poehler continually got overlooked. I know, I know, painting bags under your eyes and staring out a window is a quick route to recognition, but come on.... yeah, so what if I'm digressing... suck it!...
The in-a-nutshell conceit that Claudel plays with in I've Loved You So Long is yet another twig on the "one shouldn't judge a book by it's cover" (or, an ex-convict by her sentence) morality branch. That's not such a bad social tenet to be reminded of, but Claudel's lunge for humanism feels out-of-reach when the ball finally drops and we learn of the reasons behind the death of Juliette's son. Thankfully, Claudel avoids lingering on any Million Dollar Baby brow-beating weepiness, but the final sister vs. sister showdown lacks the passion one would expect after fifteen years of secrecy and not knowing get smashed in an instant (not to mention the films' two hours of dramatic build-up).
I've Loved You So Long isn't so bad. The performances by the variety of professional and established foreign actors make the film much more watchable than it deserves to be, but like so much Oscar season fare, "over-hyped mediocrity" (ILYSL is way more of a minor work than critics will lead you to believe) again feels like the appropriate category to file one of 2008's spotlight movies in as the meat of Movie Year 2009 starts to show.
ONE FINAL, SILLY SIDE NOTE:
Tonight, while eating pizza, I re-watched the first thirty minutes of I've Loved You So Long with dubbed audio instead of subtitles. I did it just for kicks, but man-oh-man did it ever remind me of the barriers which are raised when someone watches a foreign film with dubbed audio. So, so much is lost in the verbal intonations if you don't use subtitles.
Kristen Scott Thomas did Juliette's overdubs, but the rest of the characters sound like hack line readers without a days worth of acting instincts. I can't imagine Philipe Claudel being fine with this. Do directors have any say on who does the dubbing for DVDs???
Hmm... anyway... just had to get that out.