Through sublime coincidence, the exquisite new French film I've Loved You So Long arrives on the heels of the exceptional Rachel Getting Married, both about long-estranged siblings trying to reunite and overcome the ghosts of lingering family tragedy. Plot similarities aside, the films are a universe apart — one nosily neurotic, the other hauntingly taciturn — but what they have in common are absolutely stunning performances and respective lead actresses who will likely be rubbing elbows at award season cocktail parties.
The elegant Kristin Scott Thomas is more known for playing aristocratic British beauties (Gosford Park, The English Patient), but she's lived in France for decades, and here utters not one word in her native tongue, but is as good in French as she's ever been in English. She plays Juliette, a former doctor newly released after a lengthy stay in prison for an unspeakable crime. The details of that crime get doled out cautiously, like tiny nibbles on a scone over a long brunch, but, in true French fashion, the film is about feeling and not incident. Juliette's younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) is eager to welcome home the woman she no longer knows but has idealized and feared for many years. Her family is a little less enthused, from her reticent husband (Serge Hazanavicius) to her adorable adopted Vietnamese daughters, who don't know quite what to make of their sullen "auntie." She's not sure what to make of herself, so beaten down and shameful from isolation she can't even begin to understand what feeling normal again would mean, or if she has a right to such a thing. But try as she might to punish herself, life's tiny pleasures start to erode her walls, a cup of coffee, a relaxing swim, the energy of her little nieces, and the smiles of men who notice her beautiful features even if she's forgotten her own face.
At times, writer and first-time director Claudel telegraphs his own plot, and other times proceeds at a frustrating crawl before offering a swift revelation near the end. Still, he's got an ear for character and a gentle touch with actors, including the lovely and controlled Zlyberstein, but it's Thomas' show, in a perfect, can't-miss display. Such melancholy might overwhelm a lesser actress, but Thomas' silent intensity makes her constant agony burn, and each tiny victory a soothing release.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21-22, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 23.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].