“I’ve Loved You So Long”
At the Michigan

Courtesy of Sony

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Last year’s French melodrama “I’ve Loved You So Long” is difficult to understand without being a parent.

The film’s plot revolves around the death of a young child and its resolution is so contentious it’s difficult to say if the movie is any good or not. The film is hard to understand, as it is driven by complicated, parental, chain-smoking, progressive main characters. French theatrics sure are tough, eh? But maybe that’s not the purpose of this film.

“I’ve Loved You” contains a fascinating argument that falters only under its own pretenses and first-timer direction.

From what can be understood, the plot goes like this: Juliette Fontaine (Kristin Scott Thomas, “Confessions of a Shopaholic”) has just been released from prison after a 15-year stint. Juliette’s much younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein, “Modigliani”) uneasily takes her big sis in, which casts a lingering pall that hangs over her estranged family. Lea has a husband and two adopted daughters who meet Juliette with equal parts curiosity and crossness. And from their familial interactions, we gather Juliette hasn’t spoken to her parents in a long time, as they taught Lea to pretend Juliette never existed. Why, exactly, has Juliette been outcast?

Juliette killed her 6-year-old son.

The remainder of the film is a kind of delayed aftermath where scenes and circumstances come to fruition as Juliette struggles to get back to “normal” life. Colleagues judge her for what she’s done, but Juliette bites her tongue harder than any other person has in his or her life, holding herself back from telling others about her past. These reactions are contained in a series of moments. But these moments bring to life an array of consequences and decisions.

“I’ve Loved You” concerns itself with redemption and moving on. It’s also about making choices, understanding your family and, most importantly, being a parent and taking that responsibility. Maybe this is why college students might have trouble understanding this film.

Parents and future parents might find the film more interesting, since it provides fine practice in polemics. Why did Juliette kill her own child? Can a death ever be justified? What can we understand about this woman? Shades of gray, indeed. At first, the film’s weakness is that it has no real goals. But that issue becomes “I’ve Loved You’s” strength. Through it’s open-ended scenes, the film offers few answers, but still raises interesting questions.

One scene in particular, which contains what might be the most uncomfortable dinner table ever filmed, shows Juliette making a joke of her prison sentence as Lea’s literati friends pound her for answers. The party wonders where Juliette has been for such a long time, and her shame is apparent as she’s forced to make light of it. Scott Thomas is devastating, and the scene is just one of many standouts.

The acoustic soundtrack to the film doesn’t always fit, some dramatic beats get screwed by overacting and the way the film blocks together the scenes occasionally hurts. Still, “I’ve Loved You So Long” is a strong film, with a stronger lead.

Scott Thomas has been making the rounds for the last two months as an indie darling. Nominated everywhere from the BAFTAs to the Golden Globes, there was soft dismay at her Oscar snub for this film. She certainly outperforms Angelina Jolie (“Changeling”) in a similarly maudlin mother role. Mothers must have it hard, but Scott Thomas excels in her role with greater responsibilities.

But who cares about the Oscars at this point? Scott Thomas is truly affecting and worthy of praise. Just don’t bring kids to this one.

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