Watching the French melodrama I've Loved You So Long is a bit like house-training a puppy—it's very rewarding once it's done, but getting there requires more than a little patience. It's a cerebral film that will lend itself to lengthy post-theater discussion and references to obscure arthouse dramas.
The thing that might keep I've Loved You So Long from becoming one of those largely forgotten movies is Kristin Scott Thomas' elegant performance. Thomas stars as Juliette, a woman recently released from prison after a 15-year incarceration for a shocking crime. She plays Juliette with dignity and restraint, only occasionally (and justifiably) resorting to the sort of Oscar-bothering histrionics that lesser actors live for.
From the opening scenes, we get the impression that Juliette withdrew from life long before she first set foot in prison. Her only anchor in the world she left behind is Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), her estranged younger sister. Léa is eager to help Juliette navigate her long journey back to some semblance of a life, and offers her a bedroom in her home. Léa's husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), isn't quite so anxious to help, and doesn't like the idea of Juliette spending time with the couple's two adopted Vietnamese daughters.
Initially, Juliette is surly, belligerent, and not at all likeable. She rebuffs anyone who tries to show her kindness, and seems almost satisfied when treated with scorn or disdain. It's clear that, while she may have served out her prison sentence, she intends to maintain a sort of self-imposed incarceration.
Juliette has a long road ahead of her as she tries to rebuild her life. Nudging her along is Capitaine Fauré (Frédéric Pierrot), a sympathetic but troubled parole officer who sincerely wants to help her, if she'll let him. She finds a possible love interest in Michel (Laurent Grévill), one of her sister's co-workers. Initially determined to keep both men at arm's length, her gradual thawing is one of the film's greatest pleasures.
While there's no shortage of talk about Juliette's prison stay, everyone stringently avoids the real elephant in the room: the crime that put her there. We discover the details of her transgression—it's a doozy—gradually as the story plays out, only learning the full circumstances during the film's teary climactic revelation.
Novelist/screenwriter Philippe Claudel does a surprisingly good job with his first directing gig, but there's an insurmountable problem with the movie that no amount of cinematic aptitude can fix: Film is a dynamic, visual medium, but Juliette's journey is strictly an internal one. Claudel externalizes the conflict whenever he can, but it's not enough to keep the movie from being frustratingly slow and elegiac. Except for the fine performances, one can't help thinking the story would have been better served as a book.
From a screenwriting perspective, I've Loved You So Long is a film student's dream. The dialogue practically oozes subtext, and the film is replete with overt symbolism, most of which involves water. The characters talk about water, sing about water, play in water, and look at water. I get what the filmmaker is going for here (you'd have to be thick not to), but it all just made me regret my stop at the concession stand for a bucket of soda.
A bit about the ending: Some reviewers have called it a cop-out, but that's just critic-speak for "I can't think of anything else to say." The ending is what it is; everything that comes before it leads up to the big reveal in the film's final moments. Had that revelation been anything else, we'd be looking at an entirely different movie. The film certainly has its problems, but that isn't one of them.
I've Loved You So Long is likely to inspire ambivalence in many viewers. It has much to recommend it—exceptional performances, likeable characters, a sometimes compelling mystery that makes us want to stick around to find out what happened and what is still to come—but it often gets bogged down in its own sense of self-importance.