Still Waters Run Deep

Photo: Thierry Valletoux/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

The comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno has a peerless come-on. Two Pittsburgh apartment-mates (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) can’t pay their bills and have a Eureka moment: Why not get into the amateur sex-video trade? They assemble a John Waters–like family of freaks, cobble together a plot based on Star Wars (Star Whores, ho ho), and have at it. Although Rogen is the leading man, the movie isn’t the latest raunchy excrescence from Judd Apatow Factory. It’s written and directed by Kevin Smith—and hats off to him for being savvy enough to go for a piece of the Apatow action! Too bad he doesn’t rise to the occasion. There is nudity (not by Banks but a couple of real—or, as the case may be, silicone—porn stars), but the movie is mostly grating banter (F-bombs and anal-sex jokes) with a mushy center. It all comes down to whether Zack and Miri, platonic buds for so many years, will endanger their friendship by having sex on-camera. And when they do, will they realize that they’re meant for each other?

Rogen, Zack and Miri’s biggest commercial asset, might also be its biggest liability. Now, I could be wrong about this: Perhaps Rogen is catnip to the ladies, the Daniel Craig of sex farce. But this is not a man who appears to take good care of his body, and the movie doesn’t use his lack of physical appeal as a source of laughs—as Apatow sort of did in Knocked Up. The way Smith treats Rogen strikes me as the way he’d treat a young Tom Hanks or Jason Segel of Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Justin Long (who has an overlong cameo as a gay-porn actor)—the quick-witted nerd who could also be a dreamboat. But when Rogen sheds his clothes and climbs atop the lovely Banks and the bells ring and the fireworks explode, well … Imagine if James Franco played Zack, and Miri was an out-of-shape woman with bad skin and a big honker. Can there be that much of a double standard when it comes to actors’ looks?

Splinter has a hackneyed gimmick—dead bodies trying to smash their way into an isolated convenience store—but I loved it to pieces: scuttling hands, marauding legs, spinning torsos. The source of the mayhem is a parasitic fungus that uses splinters (they’re more like quills) to puncture anything with blood in its veins; the bodies are reanimated, whatever their yuck-o condition. The English director, Toby Wilkins, has a long career in special effects and knows how to shoot them: tight, the victims’ bodies twisting furiously to avoid contact. The rest of the time, he has a visual sense of menace—the store, with its short aisles and sharp corners, becomes a terrifying obstacle course. Best of all, the film has real dramatic tension and a first-rate cast. It begins with a nerdy (but not too nerdy—see the last review) biologist (Paulo Costanzo) and his brainy-hotcha girlfriend getting carjacked by an escaped convict (the charismatic Shea Whigham) and his delusional drug-addicted girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs)—the threat is from without and within. The result, however clichéd, is spectacularly unnerving: hair-trigger horror.

More horror: For Halloween, the IFC Center revives Werner Herzog’s somnolent but evocative Nosferatu remake, worth seeing for Klaus Kinski’s chalky, taloned, world-weary bloodsucker, who falls on Isabelle Adjani’s white throat like a suckling infant. At the Film Forum, do not miss the documentary Stranded, a haunting work in which the survivors of the notorious 1972 Andean plane crash return to the site of their ordeal. What continues to grip us in this story, now told multiple.

I’ve Loved You So Long
Directed by Philippe Claudel.
Sony Pictures Classics. PG-13.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Directed by Kevin Smith.
The Weinstein Company. R.

Directed by Toby Wilkins.
Magnet Releasing. R.


Still Waters Run Deep