‘I’ve Loved You So Long’ a satisfying character study

Posted March 12, 2009, at 11:02 p.m.

On DVD

I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG, written and directed by Philippe Claudel, 117 minutes, rated PG-13. In French with English subtitles.

Philippe Claudel’s “I’ve Loved You So Long” finds Kristin Scott Thomas delivering one of last year’s best performances in one of last year’s better films.

Released at the start of the awards season, where it created some early buzz before losing ground and fading away, the movie now can be seen on DVD, which remains that great equalizer for those who want access to movies that go beyond, say, this weekend’s wide releases of the raunch comedy “Miss March,” the horror remake of “The Last House on the Left” and Disney’s “Race to Witch Mountain.”

“I’ve Loved You So Long” doesn’t have their budgets or their marketing heft, but it’s a terrific foreign film and it deserves to be seen.

The movie is the story of two sisters — elder Juliette (Scott Thomas) and younger Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) — who come to know each other again after a 15-year separation.

What drew them apart? That would be prison, where Juliette stayed after committing a murder that’s so divisive, her presence causes immediate tension between Lea and her husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), when Juliette moves in to live with them. There, along with Lea and Luc’s two adopted daughters and Luc’s father (Jean-Claude Arnaud, excellent), who suffered a stroke and cannot speak, they are forced to work through a conflict that is so tense, it might undermine their marriage.

In spite of what her sister did (the movie reveals whom she murdered gradually, powerfully), Lea is determined to put the past into the past — she loves her sister and wants to move forward into this new relationship with her.

Luc isn’t quite as forgiving, particularly since he now has to contend with a convicted murderer living in his house. Who is this woman, anyway? Would she kill his two daughters if she had the chance? Would she kill his wife, his father, perhaps even him? Who knows? Certainly not Luc, who hasn’t met Juliette until now, and so his worries brew.

About Juliette — she certainly is a mystery, that one. Cloaked in a pallor of regret, rage, misgivings, hurt and a wealth of other emotions you can’t put your finger on because Scott Thomas allows no one to come too close, her Juliette doesn’t say much, but her face speaks volumes. And that’s the greatness behind her performance — the seamless way she at once conceals the truth and fiercely embraces it. That sounds like a contradiction, but here it makes for a complex, satisfying character study.

This is a movie concerned with a woman in transition. Who is Juliette if she doesn’t reveal the truth of her crime to those who wish to be closer to her? And who is she to herself and to them if she does spill the goods? Director Claudel, who is best known as a novelist, keeps his eye trained on that one core question, carrying it through wakes of light and darkness to an ending that’s just as deservedly explosive — and as cathartic — as it needs to be.

Grade: A-

Also on DVD

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, written and directed by Mike Leigh, 118 minutes, rated R.

Initially, Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” is so overbearing, it’s a turn-off. Its central character, a 30-year-old British schoolteacher named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is an unhinged blur on the screen, a light shining so brightly, you can’t help but want to lift a hand to your eyes and block her out — forever.

She’s so cheerful, chummy and chatty, her big smiling mouth filling the screen with the sort of appalling happiness that suggests she’s snorted Colombia out of its stockades of cocaine, that you look around for a switch to turn her off. Only there isn’t one, and so you sit there watching her, tolerating her, wishing that she’d just tone it down.

But no. Poppy is her own caffeine, a force of positivity thrown into a world that is so cynical and disenfranchised (for good reason), it doesn’t know quite how to handle someone with such high spirits. And so it often doesn’t handle them well. For Poppy, it’s good that those close to her understand her and love her, including her roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman, wonderful) and her younger sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn), the latter of whom is as dark and as brooding as Poppy is bright.

The conversations between them are as energetic as anything you’d find in a Robert Altman movie, with the actors talking over each other in ways that are so natural, the movie deepens its appeal as it unfolds. The rat-a-tat-tat of their words hit the screen with force. For an actor, none of this is easy to pull off, and yet here, with this talented cast, the effect is seamless.

Unfortunately for Poppy, for those who don’t know her, she’s an annoying mess. Take, for instance, her weird driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Here is a man who so defines road rage — whether it’s toward the person he’s teaching or those on the road around him — you believe that he hasn’t had a good day in his entire life. He is the film’s hostile center, so infused with anger, there are moments when you consider that his life will end by that elusive, heated form of death known as spontaneous combustion.

It’s how Poppy handles him — with a kindness he’s never known and then, when their relationship grows more intense, with a directness that cuts through him — that sets the film up for its best scene. It won’t be revealed here, but what you take from it and other scenes in the movie is that happiness is a choice for Poppy.

At first, you think it just comes naturally to her, but by the end of the movie, when you’ve seen her facade slip a little, you understand that this is the person she has chosen to be, and that the choice isn’t easy to hold up given the negativity swirling around her.

As such, a kind of admiration sinks in — and with it, this odd little movie lifts.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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