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Update: 

March 3:  The DVD has come out.  For those who don’t like to read subtitles, the DVD has an English Version with Kristin Scott Thomas voicing her own part.  But nothing compares to the original of course. 

Feb. 8  I’ve Loved You So Long has just won the BAFTA for Best Film Not In The English Lanugage tonight in London, England.

Dec. 11:  I’ve Loved You So Long has just been nominated for two Golden Globes, Best Foreign Film and Best Actress (Drama) for Kristin Scott Thomas.

Sisters reuniting is the storyline of several movies recently, as in Margot At The Wedding (2007) and Rachel Getting Married (2008 ).  But both Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway are just featherweights compared to Kristin Scott Thomas’s powerful performance here in I’ve Loved You So Long.

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Winner of the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, I’ve Loved You So Long is the  directorial debut of Philippe Claudel, French novelist, screenwriter, and professor of literature at The University of Nancy.  It is unfortunate that festival films like this one are rarely shown in North America, except in major selective cities.  I’ve wanted to see the film for a while, but not until my trip to Vancouver last week did I have the chance to watch it in a theatre.

In the film, the reunion of the sisters comes under the most unusual of circumstances.  Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, 1996) plays Juliette, an older sister who has just been released on parole after 15 years in prison.  She rejoins society to the  embrace of her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein).  Léa was only a young teenager when her much older sister was disowned by their parents.  To them, the crime she had committed was unforgivable.   Léa was told to ostracize Juliette, as the rest of the family did.   Now years later, Léa is teaching literature at a university, and  mature enough to reconnect the tie that binds.   She receives Juliette  into her own home, a warm family with a loving husband, two adopted Vietnamese girls, and her father-in-law Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who has lost his ability to speak after a stroke.  But her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is apprehensive, and understandably so.

Like the viewers, Léa is kept in the dark as to the details of the act Juliette had done , a secret that is painfully borne by Juliette alone.  The slow unfolding of the facts thus sets the stage for the heart-wrenching performance by Scott Thomas.  The film is an exploration into the nature of good and evil, love and forgiveness.  In our society that excels in labeling people, the writer/director leads us to ponder the questions of what constitutes a crime, who are the victims, likewise, who are the strong, the helpers, and who are those that need help?  How can we truly know each other?  And ultimately, what is love?

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I admire that the elegant Oscar nominated actress Scott Thomas was willing to take up a role that would cast her against type, and to work under a first-time director.  Devoid of  make-up, her gaunt and haunted look,  deep set eyes and languid lids, and the high cheek bones that used to speak of beauty in her other films now form the epitome of a soul tormented.  Her icy demeanor reflects a guarded self that is too wounded to risk another blow.  Though released from physical confinement, Juliette is still imprisoned by her own guilt, and has to serve a  life sentence of torments from the ambivalence of her act.  Scott Thomas has poignantly portrayed a believable character and effectively created a tragic heroine.  Juliet is out of prison, has nowhere to go, lost to herself and the world.

Yet love paves the road to redemption, and courage is the building block.  While Léa plays a major part in reaching out to Juliette, her adopted daughters and even the silent Papy Paul have all unknowingly participated  in the healing process. It is his silence and the calming effect of his books that Juliette finds affinity.  In sharing the French children’s song ‘Il y a longtemps que je t’aime’ with Léa’s adopted daughter P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur), she ventures out to reconnect in a meaningful way.

Léa also invites Juliette into her circle of friends, in particular, her colleague Michel (Laurent Grévill).  Michel has spent some time teaching in a prison.  He reaches out to Juliette with his understanding and compassion, and shares with her the enjoyment of art.  Although he does not know the full details of her circumstances, he respects her humanity and offers his friendship, even when Juliette is not ready to receive.  He patiently waits.

Engrossing and intense, the film nonetheless offers a satisfying experience.  Even though I was able to guess the nature of the dark secret underlying the suspense, such that it has lessened the effect of surprise on me at the end, I still find the film thoroughly enjoyable, in particular, the superb acting from both sisters.  For those who associate tears with melodramatic and contrived effects, the film is an apt refutation of such a view.  Tears are most welcome and cathartic as a closure here after almost 90 minutes of elliptical restraint,  for they are  the very expression of reconciliation and redemption.  The climax is one of the most poignant I’ve seen in a long while, and the subsequent ending, a triumph.

I look forward to more of Claudel’s work.  And for Kristin Scott Thomas, I think she deserves no less than an Oscar for her performance.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

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