For us movie critics, a Bat Signal blazes in the sky whenever a Frenchforeign film hits theaters.
Rather than a call to fight crime, this signal is a beacon letting usknow it's time to dive into our pathetic cars that all the girls laughat and speed off to attend something boring that no one else caresabout. (That's why, instead of a bat, our signal is shaped like a highschool.) Yet unlike Batman, who has a secret cave to hide in if he'sfeeling antisocial or hungover, if we don't heed the call of oursignal, our editors whip us within an inch of our lives. They're verybad men.
So forget the fact that my other viewing choices this weekend were a)jocks join the cheer squad in order to get laid or b) young male actordresses up as fat old woman in order to drive us to suicide. There wassimply no way I was missing the French film I've Loved You SoLong. Truth is, reading subtitles makes us feel better thanyou -- and in the end, isn't that the noblest condition man can attain?
Though Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein are sisters, they'realmost strangers. Fifteen years ago, Thomas was sent to prison; theirparents forbade Zylberstein to see her. But now their parents aregone, Thomas is being released, and Zylberstein and her family are theonly ones who will take her in.
Thomas is haunted, distant, given to flashes of anger. Herpresence -- and her crime -- starts to stress Zylberstein's marriage. Yetin time, the emotional ice around Thomas shows signs it's starting tothaw.
Sounds like a real barn burner of a plot, right, but I've Loved YouSo Long strives first and foremost for realism, thus trading thelaser-charged staff-fighting so common in other dramas for strong,relatable characters and a good feel for day-to-day life. Except inthis case, "day-to-day life" means "struggling to cope with thecrushing guilt of your heinous, heinous crime."
It's that numb guilt that dominates Thomas' performance. She's awalking ghost, so torn up by her past she's almost incapable ofconversation or basic civility. Worst of all, based on what she'sdone, she may be right to feel that way.
Yet somehow -- maybe because she doesn't attempt to defend or justifyherself -- it's hard to condemn her. As a test of our moralsensibilities, writer/director Philippe Claudel's sermon-free approachis a fair one; oh, Thomas is definitely going to hell for what she'sdone, but since Claudel never tries to manipulate us into forgivingher -- well, not until the end, at least -- she stays too human to justwrite off.
That's enough to keep things engaging even when the episodic storystarts to drift. Realism's a double-edge sword: it usually lets forbetter insight into real life than movies where the big question iswhether the hero will be able to crash his motorcycle into thatdeath-spitting helicopter, but except in the crude terms of beingborn, existing, and then dying, real life doesn't exactly have thebeginning, middle, and end that some old guy once decided wereimportant things for stories to have.
Despite its handicap of mirroring our dull and formless lives, themovie stays reasonably cohesive while giving itself room forinteresting sidetracks like Thomas' lonely but charming paroleofficer. Still, if accurately capturing the confusion of existence iswhat ultimately makes I've Loved You So Long worth watching, Iwonder if its ending doesn't go too far to absolve her. It's an easyway out for everyone, but the woman who has to live with it.