Blu-ray Review: I've Loved You So Long (2008)

On DVD & Blu-ray 3/3/09

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The French language becomes Kristin Scott Thomas like Mourning Becomes Electra in Eugene O'Neill's famous Greek tragedy inspired woman's weepie. And indeed, Thomas' turn in novelist turned director Philippe Claudel's debut film resonates with audiences on the same level O'Neill's work did as it's highly literary, female-centric, tragic at its core, and marks the finest tour-de-force portrayal in Thomas' career so far.

Understated and subtle-- it's a wonderfully ambiguous work that unfolds slowly and methodically revealing the plot through the characterization and aside from one major confrontation near the end of the film where finally the truth comes to light-- it's quiet and poignant throughout its running time.

Yet, moreover I've Loved You So Long feels entirely authentic and achieves a feat for which so many American independent films aim. Namely, it succeeds by telling a tragic tale but it does so without opting for the easy route of wallowing in the dysfunction or devastation of its subject matter.

In fact, by not spelling out all the details of the main character's past locked up for fifteen years in prison for murder-- we're therefore far more engaged in the plot in its far more intimate approach as writer/director Claudel treats viewers as though we're members of the family. More specifically, we find ourselves simultaneously fearful yet saddened as we tip-toe around Thomas' Juliette Fontaine whose horrific past is only hinted at until roughly a quarter of a way into the 117 minute film when we learn whom it is she has killed.

Despite a collective gasp and the fact that aside from a few careless critics spelling it out in cheap headlines or giving it away within the opening paragraphs of their reviews-- thus not understanding that revealing the nature of the crime goes against why the film works so well-- we continue watching, wanting to learn more, appalled and fascinated by Thomas' haunting turn.

Having been released into the custody of her much younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) a married mother of two adopted Vietnamese girls who works as a professor-- Juliette struggles with life on the outside with the defeated, hardened expression that stays on her face as she meets with the requisite social service agent and a parole officer whose nervous chattiness seems to reveal that he only understands too well what she's going through.

A former medical doctor now content to find any manner of suitable work after having taken secretarial coursework in prison, Juliette faces the prejudices of others and manages to throw everyone off balance as she and Lea try to hide the truth of where she was from Lea and her suspicious husband Luc's inquisitive circle of friends. This proves to be a far more complicated task during a remarkably arresting scene that finds Juliette interrogated by a drunken host until finally she reveals where she was and only gets laughter in response of what the guests assume must be a joke.

But it isn't a joke as we and Juliette's family know all too well and there's nothing funny about the dimensions Thomas brings to her performance. However, intriguingly, the film has a genuinely redemptive tone to it as she tries to re-adjust to a life and sister she doesn't now know as a grown woman. And in doing so, Claudel leads you down a few different psychological paths as we discover that strangely Lea (who was a teen when Juliette went away) has somehow managed to block out most of the memories she has of her sister. Is there an even deeper family mystery at play?

Claudel drops hints throughout the work and while even when the film ends, we still have questions about Juliette pre-incarceration (including being divorced while inside)-- yet justifiably for the tone of the material, nothing is neatly wrapped up. And the ambiguity and sense of vagueness of I've Loved You So Long lingers throughout and long after it ends in a way that makes it all the more effective as we're presented with what we need to know and the realization that we're not even entirely sure that Juliette herself has been able to process all that has happened.

Overall, it's a far greater film than a majority of the confrontational and brutal American works made popular over the last few years including The Savages, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding that go to great lengths to antagonize the viewer with ugly characters we can't identify with in an endless parade of overly depressing independent works of dysfunction.

No instead, when we do begin to tear up at this film's ending, we feel as though it was genuinely earned. And perhaps far more refreshingly, we understand that the tears are bittersweet as having finally unburdened herself and with the stark realization that she can never go back-- perhaps Juliette can move forward instead of psychologically remaining in the prison she'd exited at the start of the film.

Although Thomas garnered a Golden Globe nomination for her role and the film also was nominated as the Best Foreign Language Film for the year from its native France and it scored numerous accolades and nominations around the globe, unfortunately it was overlooked when it came time for the Academy Awards.

Now released onto a gorgeous transfer to DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics, the Blu-ray also boasts double the proof of Thomas' innate understanding of her role by offering viewers the chance to hear her performance in the dubbed English version as well as Sony's BD-Live network and deleted scenes that can be screened with Claudel's optional commentary if one so desires.

And by giving viewers the option of languages, hopefully it will encourage those afraid of subtitles who avoided it at the theatre or lived in cities that didn't carry it to give it a chance as we can now experience her extraordinary work in two languages, making it that much more upsetting that she was overlooked by the Academy voters.