Saturday, February 21, 2009

French phoenix: I’ve loved you for so long

Sick of empty action movies and adaptations of graphic novels. Here’s a film to test the tear ducts and challenge your ideas of normal life. Director Philippe Claudel’s I’ve loved you for so long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) wrestles both heart and head.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who spent her formative years in England, has lived for many years in France and it shows. She plays the lead role of Juliette Fontaine who comes to live with her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) and family after 15 years absence.

There are dual mysteries. For those who did not know her previously, it’s where she has been. A confession at a dinner party is regarded as a joke because it appears so out of character with this sensitive, sensible woman. For her family, the puzzle is what caused her to do what she did.

This is a sombre, desolate tale. It is as much about her complex relationships as it is the past: her sister, brother-in-law Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) and his father (Jean-Claude Arnaud), their adopted Vietnamese daughters, her demented mother, and her lover Michel (Laurent Grévill). Each presents unique challenges for Juliette who is both alienated and guilt ridden. When she comes to live with her Léa’s, she is completely estranged from them but sees no alternative. She sees herself as beyond redemption.

The cast all give strong performances especially Thomas and Zylberstein. It is slow paced but this suits the nature of this psychological drama. Much of film is bleak and melancholic, even with the positive directions emerging in Juliette’s life. She is not the only one in a severely damaged and depressed state. Juliette encounters tragedy in a friendship with someone whose role is to help her adjust to her new life. Ever so gradually she restores some sense of identity and normality through work, romance and independence. But there is pain in every step.

As the tragic tale unfolds, it is not difficult to guess what happened and what motivated her. More problematic is her family’s acceptance of both her rejection of any help at the time and her refusal to speak about it. It is hard to believe that the circumstances surrounding her actions could be kept secret.

2008 was a good year for French language films. Philippe Claudel’s was one of the best. I’ve loved you for so long does not fit the tag of ‘entertainment’ so commonly used to categorise cinema these days. Don’t go on a day you’re feeling fragile but do see it if you get the chance.

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