Il y a longtemps que je t'aime
**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C+
starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grevill
written and directed by Philippe Claudel
by Bryant Frazer There are a number of reasons why Kristin Scott Thomas's performance, which is at the centre of I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime), stands out. Yes, it's because she's a terrific screen presence. Yes, it's because it's invariably refreshing to see a 48-year-old Englishwoman sinking her teeth into a three-dimensional role, not just emoting with great adeptness but deploying her fluent French. But there's another reason: In a film that basically amounts to an extremely well-executed Lifetime Movie Channel special, Thomas is by far the most nuanced aspect of the production. In the sleepiness of her eyes and the weariness of her glances, you can read her acid dismissal of the world around her. In the parallel lines of tiny wrinkles around her lips--you can see them in close-up--are mapped out the quiet ravages that would be visited upon any of us by too many years in splendid isolation. Thomas is an unself-conscious beauty for sure, but an aging one. And it's that full-fledged adulthood, that great density of experience and heartbreak that she embodies, that adds weight to what could be, as scripted, an off-puttingly generic moodiness. Her presence is a beacon amongst stock characters and coy screenwriter's tricks, a canticle amidst the clichés that threaten to swamp her story.
Everyone here is pretty solid, from Elsa Zylberstein as Léa, the kid sister who takes Juliette (Thomas) into her home, to Laurent Grevill as Michel, the academic who thinks he'd be ready to fall in love if only Juliette were ready to have him. Yet Thomas, playing an ex-convict returning to society after a 15-year imprisonment, brings a special dignity to the role of Juliette that earns the film the lion's share of whatever credibility it has. Even in stillness and silence, she manages to exude a great sadness; and sadness is what I've Loved You So Long is all about.
Writer-director Philippe Claudel has a specific type of tragedy in mind but knows that if he gives it away up front, he won't have much of a movie. So he parcels out information schematically, one line of dialogue at a time. In one scene, we learn that Juliette was sent to prison for murder. In another, we discover that she didn't say anything in her defense at the trial. And so on. Claudel waits until the film's last big scene to spell out the precise circumstances of the crime, only to dial the emotion level up so high that a circuit blows. What's more, all the screaming and crying that attends this anticlimax cheapens everything Thomas has done elsewhere in the film--it's an awfully ordinary culmination for a fairly extraordinary performance. It doesn't help that the film is scored with non-descript, putatively evocative guitar work and keyboard tones (contributed by Jean-Louise Aubert of the erstwhile French rock band Téléphone) that make the movie play like a Sundance wannabe.
On the other hand, Claudel is lucky to have for his debut film a technically skilled, no-nonsense cinematographer in Jérôme Alméras, who brings off what could be embarrassingly mannered shot compositions surprisingly well, catching a real richness of colour in the frame. Moments that take place under low lighting conditions are rendered in beautiful tones of orange; Claudel returns repeatedly to the setting of a public swimming pool, where the sisters lounge together, and the screen-filling shades of blue are startling.
But if there's a lot to look at along the way, I've Loved You So Long holds few genuine surprises. Léa's home life is unspeakably quaint: her father-in-law (Jean-Claude Arnaud), rendered unable to speak by a stroke, hangs out in the margins, reading books; her protective husband (Serge Hazanavicius) frets over whether it's OK to leave the kids alone with the brooding Juliette; and her adorable Vietnamese children say the darnedest things. (Visiting a zoo with Juliette, one of them declares, indignantly, "Prisons are for bad people, not animals," leading to an awkward shushing by Léa.) There's also a dinner gathering of pointedly insufferable friends and colleagues, where both sisters are taunted by an educated and especially boorish clod who attacks Léa for lacking interest in Eric Rohmer and demands to know where Juliette has been all these years. You get the feeling Juliette would like to open the guy's carotid with her fingernails and/or canine teeth, but instead she just smiles and says, "I was in prison serving a fifteen-year sentence for murder." No one believes her and almost everybody in the room cracks up with laughter. It's unclear whether that's the reaction Juliette intended, though I'll bet it pretty much confirms her perception of the bourgeoisie assembled in that room.
Juliette takes all this in stride without exactly expressing gratitude for the amazing family-based support system she finds waiting for her upon her discharge from the slammer. "I didn't ask for any of this," she says early on. Still, she's needy. It isn't long before she's hanging out in cafés, smoking and drawing the attentions of strange men. One who ends up in bed with her asks, afterward, if it was good for her. Her enigmatic response comes back: "No, not at all. But it doesn't matter." That's the kind of detached nihilism that defines Juliette's apparently prison-damaged character, and it's an example of the kind of incomplete thought that characterizes the film. Which is another reason why Thomas excels in this material: her almost regal carriage exemplifies not just her own character's reticence, but also the entire film's frustrating tendency away from candour.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
I've Loved You So Long's North American Blu-ray release from Sony, under their Sony Pictures Classics banner, is excellent. The video, letterboxed to 1.85:1, is encoded using the H.264 codec, and the 117-minute feature takes up nearly 25 GB of storage space. Picture quality is outstanding, with daylight exteriors retaining a hint of grain, interiors displaying a bit more, and the film's darkest scenes exhibiting a thick layer. The image was mastered with what appears to be a relatively hands-off attitude towards dynamics--this looks like real 35mm film, without music-video style crushed blacks or over-saturated colours. Clearly reproducing dialogue and music alike, the accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD tracks, in French and English, are solid if hemispheric in nature. (Thomas did her own dubbing in the latter, for what it's worth.) Subtitles come in two flavours: English and none.
Extras are limited to a little over five minutes of standard-def outtakes with optional audio commentary from Claudel. There is a catch: Claudel speaks in French, so if you watch them with the commentary activated, his subs take precedence over the English dialogue translations. Claudel is adept at explaining what's going on in these elisions and repeatedly confirms his good instincts. I might prefer the original version of the seventh scene, "Léa is Called Out (Alternative)," simply because it brings back a character we've seen several times on the sidelines. Otherwise, these are smart cuts. I'm assuming a feature-length commentary by Claudel exists, but it isn't on this disc, probably because Sony figured nobody would read subtitles for a two-hour-long yak-track.
A BD Live link rounds out the package. As opposed to film-specific content, it provides a grab-bag of HD trailers available for viewing via the BD Live interface. The streamed video quality is decent, but using the BD Live interface is still quite slow and painful, like browsing the Web with Mosaic and a dial-up connection circa 1995. Skippable HiDef previews for The Class and Persepolis materialize before the main menu comes on screen. HD previews accessible from the special-features menu include CJ7, Married Life, The Jane Austen Book Club, Passengers, Seven Pounds, and Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway. The omnipresent promo piece "Blu-ray Disc is High Definition!" is, of course, the first thing you see when you fire up the disc. While Sony recently updated some of the film clips therein, I think the Blu-ray community at large would just as soon see this one put out to pasture. Originally published: March 24, 2009.