Juliette, a middle-aged woman, waits alone, gray and taciturn -- two words that pretty well describe "I've Loved You So Long." She stands to haltingly greet her rendez-vous, her sister, Lea. We gather they've been apart a long time. Juliette's been "away," her past a talked-around negative space that's filled out as the film nurses us for two hours on a drip-feed of withheld backstory.
The movie relies on a sustaining performance by Kristin Scott Thomas, the English actress whose fluent French has allowed her an alternate Continental career, as Juliette. We come to understand that Juliette's fresh off of the prisonyard. Fifteen years disappeared, she's now incapable of selecting a normal social response -- her reactions belatedly twitch across her face as though having traveled from fathomless depths to finally flick the surface. It looks, at first, like one of those vacuum-sealed performances that they usually call in Isabelle Huppert for. But the movie is the process of Juliette's slow resurrection, and (less gripping) her sister's family acclimating to this strange relation. Scott Thomas is touching as a woman relearning herself -- much more so than the drippy here-come-the-sun guitar work that comes along to announce her thaw.
This is the first directorial outing for Philippe Claudel, who has previously established himself as a novelist, scriptwriter, and teacher. The academic milieu seems to provide him a source of some familiar comfort amidst the new adventure of becoming a film director, so Lea works as a literature instructor, and Juliette tentatively flirts with one of her sister's colleagues. This allows conversational allusion to "Giono's novels," Rohmer, canvases by Emile Friant at the Musee des beaux arts, Ernst Lubitsch's "The Shop Around the Corner" . . . The last is the most important reference point, as Lubitsch's film also emphasizes the pudding-skin of circumstance separating everyday life from tragedy -- "Shop"'s unlucky-in-love Mr. Matuschek here stood-in for by Juliette's despondent parole officer (Frederic Pierrot, constantly pinned in uncomfortable close-ups).
But "I've Loved You So Long" feels curiously unsound, groaning with Claudel's ambition to smuggle the whole human comedy on-board his debut. In the space of two hours there's sisterhood, motherhood, childhood, filicide, suicide, a new birth . . . even an oblique recollection of the Iraq War. And though an idea of the insufficiency of art to contain the tragic depths of life is floated -- Lea harangues a student for buying Dostoevsky's soulful killers -- what we're finally asked to confront is murder as a melodramatic convention ("life from books"), not a human catastrophe. Once settled into the film's tone, I swung three-for-three on my plot twist predictions. You shouldn't be able to do this at a movie you didn't write yourself.
The "tradition of quality," EU edition: a "literary" plot kept on a tight leash, flashes of cultural credentials, congratulatory humanism, and anesthesiac inserts of people looking grim on public transit. Still, Scott Thomas's translucent portrait of a lady is good enough to make you believe she's rummaging through mislaid feelings in real time -- seeing her dazed and ruffled after her afternoon fling with a cafe drageur, I half believed I was watching a Masterpiece.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a regular critic for the Village Voice.]