Somehow I was unaware of the fact that one of my favourite actresses, Kristin Scott Thomas, has a successful second career in French-language movies. I know it’s stupid, but I always find it disconcerting to see one of “our” actors show up in a “foreign” film. I’m so used to Hollywood importing talent from around the world that it seems perfectly natural to hear Roberto Benigni or Chow Yun-Fat garbling their phonetically-learned English lines, but Jodie Foster speaking apparently fluent French (in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement) throws me right out of the movie.
The big shocker in the first five minutes of I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) isn’t hearing Kristin Scott Thomas speak French; it’s seeing how frumpy she looks. Un-made-up – or very carefully made-down – her hair lank and messy, her face deeply lined, Juliette Fontaine sucks resignedly on a cigarette as she waits in an airport lounge for her ride to arrive. Eventually her sister picks her up, and we learn that Juliette has just been released from fifteen years in prison for a terrible crime – a crime I won’t identify, because the viewer doesn’t find out what it was for a half-hour or so, but you can probably guess.
Juliette moves into her sister’s house, where the sister’s husband nervously monitors their houseguest’s interactions with their two small children. She applies for secretarial work at a local warehouse, where the manager seems gruffly amiable – until the details of her past emerge, and in horror he orders her the hell out of his office. The sister reaches out, tentatively but persistently, but Juliette gives nothing in return: not an apology, not appreciation, and most frustratingly, not what her sister and the viewer most want – an explanation. She slouches through the film, avoiding eye contact, cutting short any conversation which threatens to turn personal. She is there, but not there; her nickname in prison, she mentions, was “The Absent One”. (Nicknames are more poetic in France.)
A lot of critics loved this movie – I’ve seen it on a number of year-end top ten lists – and through the first ninety minutes or so, I would have no quarrel with their judgement. I was impressed with the filmmakers’ patience and reserve. I thought it was just possible that here was a movie dealing with a shocking, unfathomable crime that wouldn’t, in the end, cheapen its mystery with a half-assed psychoanalysis of the criminal. Then, right at the end, a new fact emerges – in a clumsily unbelievable way – and the film veers with incredible quickness into the realm of soapy melodrama. I can’t explain how much I disliked this third act revelation without giving the whole movie away, so if you haven’t already seen it but think you might like to, please stop reading now.
So Juliette has been in prison for fifteen years for murdering her six-year-old son. Through the first ninety minutes the son is referred to only once by name, and we are given no clue as to the mother’s motive or the means by which she committed the crime. We see her interacting with her sister’s kids and, although she’s a bit prickly at first, we aren’t given any indications that she’s a danger to them or anyone else. Even the sister’s husband reluctantly comes around to the view that the murderess can be trusted. The enigma is deep and seemingly impenetrable.
Then, having found a job and made a few friends in the community, Juliette begins to come out of her shell. She finds an apartment and prepares to move out of her sister’s place. As she tidies up the guest room for the last time, she takes a sheet of paper and a photo out from under the pillow – we haven’t been shown these before, but they are mementos, we correctly assume, of her murdered son. Momentarily distracted, she puts down these treasures and leaves without picking them up again. After she’s gone, her sister finds them.
On one side of the paper is a poem written in crayon by the son. (Which is why the mother has held onto it all this time.) It is a sheet of hospital letterhead, and the other side contains the results of a medical test. The sister brings the paper to a doctor friend of hers and asks for its meaning. As you’ve probably guessed, and as the sister already has guessed, the diagnosis is fatal. The son had some kind of rare degenerative disease. It was a mercy killing.
I should pause here to explain that we’ve already learned Juliette was formerly a doctor. The reason her son’s disease was known only to her is that she diagnosed his condition herself, conducted all the tests herself, kept the results to herself, and abducted the kid from her husband before any symptoms became visible. Then she killed him – peacefully, with an injection – and destroyed any evidence of his illness. Except for the results of his medical test, which she has been hiding under her pillow for the last fifteen years.
The sister confronts Juliette: Why did you keep silent all these years about your son’s condition? Juliette replies that she was guilty regardless, guilty of “murdering him twice” – first by bringing her child into a world where he was doomed to an early death, and then again with the injection. A scene of tearful (and well-acted) catharsis ensues, the sisters end in a hug, and just then a visitor drops by, shouting from downstairs: Is there anybody here?
“Je suis là,” shouts “The Absent One” in reply. Then, just in case the third-graders in the audience missed the symbolism, she repeats quietly to herself, “Je suis là.” Fade to black.
I hated this ending so much. First off, the way it’s revealed is unbelievably pat. The fact that the son borrowed this piece of exculpatory evidence to write his poem on, thus giving his mother a reason to hold on to it; the fact that she must have had this page of medical results with her when she was arrested and no-one ever noticed or wondered about it; the fact that this apparently loving mother, a doctor, would commit murder via painless lethal injection and neither the cops nor her lawyer nor her family would entertain euthanasia as a motive – if all this happened in an American soap opera, maybe we could let it pass. In a drama that has to this point been noteworthy for its gritty, mundane realism, this ending is only marginally less jarring than if we learned her child had actually been taken by aliens. If I’ve Loved You So Long weren’t French – if it didn’t benefit from European cinema’s reputation for profundity – I don’t think anyone would take it seriously for a moment. They’d recognise it for the Lifetime Movie that it is.
But let’s put aside its implausibility. The main problem with the ending is that it’s boring. For ninety minutes, Juliette is a mystery. Then she’s just another martyr.
It’s a huge letdown.
The good news is, apparently there are a bunch of old French-language performances of Kristin Scott Thomas for me to discover. I’m always happy to watch her, in any language. Even, if necessary, in a Lifetime Movie.
I expanded my thoughts on this film in a follow-up post: “Maybe I’d be more charitable if I could force myself to see I’ve Loved You So Long as the Gothic mystery it wants to be, rather than the realistic drama it pretends to be.”