(No longer in theaters)
Sony Pictures Classics
Oct 24, 2008
The impolitic-to-the-end Robert Altman complained that while Maggie Smith won the raves and the Oscar nomination for Gosford Park, Kristin Scott Thomas gave the richer, deeper performance. I wouldn’t want to choose between those marvelous actors, but it’s true that Dame Maggie was all (exquisite) sniffles and bleats, while Scott Thomas gave her crisp aristocrat layer upon layer of subtext. There’s no chance that Scott Thomas will be overlooked these days, with her grand yet pathetic Arkadina in The Seagull on Broadway, and now her tour-de-force star turn (in French!) in the melancholy drama I’ve Loved You So Long. The film is a tease, with a cheat of a final disclosure, but Philippe Claudel’s direction is both probing and delicate, and Scott Thomas’s face, even immobile, keeps you watching, searching for hints of her character’s past, unable to blink for fear of missing something vital.
Scott Thomas plays Juliette, who comes to live at the home of her much younger sister, Leá (Elsa Zylberstein), and husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), after a separation of many years. Their first meeting is fraught for reasons we don’t yet understand—and to say any more poses a huge problem. I’ve Loved You So Long is one of those films that generates suspense by withholding the most basic information and parceling it out over the course of the running time. Telling you even its premise would be rude. So I’ll only say that its first revelation concerns where Juliette has been; its second, why she was there; and its third, well, that’s the ball game, and it comes all the way at the end—and is, as I said, a cheat, insofar as the central question, from a psychological and dramatic standpoint, is almost entirely nullified.
What’s compelling are the pregnant interactions between Juliette and the world: the hostile Luc; the couple’s bubbly adopted Vietnamese girls, who elicit both affection and anguish; Luc’s father (Jean-Claude Arnaud), a stroke victim in whose silent company she can rest; and a rather forlorn suitor (Laurent Grevill), who senses that there’s something unreachable in this traumatized woman. Most of all, the film centers on the tentative relationship between Juliette and Leá, who circles her sister, moving in and out of intimacy, magnetized yet wary of digging too deeply. Perhaps Zylberstein’s will be the overlooked performance here, which would be unjust. It’s her wavering motion that makes Scott Thomas’s stillness so compelling.
One key to Scott Thomas’s power onscreen is what might broadly be characterized as the tension between feeling and bone structure—a tension that exists in many of the cinema’s great beauties. There are brief glimpses of inner turbulence, but that face, though in this film often white and haggard and hollow-eyed, retains its finely chiseled form. Juliette’s very survival is based on keeping her body upright and her grief contained, while we peer at it closely for tremors, cracks in the mask. There’s no element of voyeurism, though—Claudel’s gaze is too compassionate. In I’ve Loved You So Long, we want to know because we want Juliette to be free. We want, along with her sister, to share her pain.