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French Cinema, Melodrama

Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long, France 2008)

Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein

This is one of those well-made dramas that only seem possible in French cinema. It is intelligent with fine performances all round and an interesting theme which is given the possibility of development over a leisurely running time (115 mins). Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Juliette, a woman released from prison after 15 years. She is met by her younger sister who takes her back to a comfortable home in Nancy. The two sisters were estranged during the long prison sentence with the younger sister banned by her parents from making contact. But now Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) is a university lecturer with two young adopted children, a husband and a father-in-law disabled by a stroke. Her parents are out of the picture and she is determined that she and Juliette can become close again. But Juliette is withdrawn and this will clearly not be a swift rehabilitation.

I should say straightaway that I enjoyed watching the film in the recently renovated art deco Tyneside Cinema and the film is obviously drawing a traditional French cinema audience (i.e. an older audience who were in afternoon and early evening screenings in good numbers). However, I’m not sure that writer-director Philippe Claudel has made the most of the potential. (It was his first film, so overall I thought he did well.) This could be a great family melodrama, but he seems to keep the lid on any visual expression and offers a relatively underplayed score. This latter picks up a pun about fountains and water (the sisters’ family name is Fontaine) that also has echoes in a relationship that gradually develops with the local police officer to whom Juliette must report. He tells her about his obsession with the Orinoco River as part of a civilised attempt to be positive. What happens to this character later was a problem for me, but perhaps I missed something. On the plus side it was nice to see an Iraqi character and a feisty/annoying smart child from Vietnam as an adoptee.

The sense of a muted emotional discourse was reinforced by the digital print. I’ve noticed this before and it might be something with other digital prints of French films. My guess is that this was shot on High Definition Video and then produced as a digital print for some cinemas (but I can’t find any evidence to back up this observation). The print I saw was super sharp, very ‘cold’ and clinical, yet in the night-time scenes lacked contrasting light and shadow. It was so bad that I found it distracting.

One real positive for me was that the film was set in Nancy. There wasn’t too much to see of the city, but it was good to have a drama set outside Paris. I have two other observations worth recording. First, I’m increasingly aware of how many French films we never see or receive only limited distribution. I wondered if I’d seen Elsa Zylberstein before and I have – but more than 10 years ago. I hope it’s not so long until next time. And finally, my ear for French accents is almost non-existent, so I was intrigued by the plot information delivered in a mealtime dialogue that Juliette was ‘half-English’. Does Kristin Scott-Thomas really need this kind of script support? Does Charlotte Rampling get the same? (Not in my memory.)

I’m intrigued that other posts see this as an award-winning performance by Thomas. She is certainly very good, but I wonder what audiences find to praise one performance over another. I think the highest praise I can give is to say that she delivers the performance that the script required and she did it flawlessly.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long, France 2008)

  1. I’m a bit more enthusiastic about the film than Venicelion (although to be fair he does rate it quite highly). I saw it tonight (at the late afternoon/early evening slot favoured by us francophile “older audience” members but there were quite a few 20-somethings in the audience) and my impression was that the audience and I found it a very powerful film. I feel the need to suppress my occasional tendency towards instant canonization but I think it rises well above “one of those well-made [French] dramas” (so many of which are dreary and turgid and I could do with a break from Isabelle Huppert for a while). I found it interesting that the one total arsehole in the film was the one who thought that Eric Rohmer was the ‘new Racine’.

    Re the problem of what happens to the sympathetic and neurotic police officer Juliette has to report to, I read it as a warning that redemption isn’t going to be easy. Maybe there was something metaphorical about the Orinoco but if so it passed me by. And on the question of the secondary characters, these worked incredibly well (even the very minor role of the husband’s father, dumb because of a stroke, and the sister’s mother, trapped in her dementia – which reminded me of the Juliette Binoche character’s mother in the wonderful Three Colours: Blue.)

    Having read the comments before I watched the film, I didn’t pick up the ‘light-and-shadow’ problem referred to but I don’t agree about the director “keeping the lid on visual expression”. I found the mise en scene and the score to be perfectly in keeping with the material; in fact, I think I noticed an effective little rack focus from one sister to the other in the final scene though I’m unsure as, like most of tonight’s audience, I was fairly enraptured by the end.

    I’m not sure of the point about The Kirsten Scott Thomas character getting script support by making her half-English. The fact that Scott Thomas, though fairly fluent in French, has a slight English accent could be a minor irritation (for a French audience) about why she has a different accent from her sister and this is a neat solution. Maybe Charlotte Rampling has a more authentic accent, I can’t remember, but not too important.

    It may be a cliché but a Hollywood studio version of this film would have been horrendous. For the engaging adopted Vietnamese daughter they’d have exhumed Shirley Temple. It’s a melodrama without melodrama.

    And I still can’t stand The English Patient!

    Posted by Des Murphy | October 23, 2008, 00:24
  2. Hmm! It’s certainly the case that this film has been even more popular than I expected. My estimate is that by now it will have grossed around £800,000 in the UK and Ireland, which is excellent for a non-genre film. However, I stick to my categorisation of a ‘well-made’ drama. My personal taste is for melodrama, but I know that possibly the majority of the audience these days prefers ‘straighter’ material. I think there were various opportunities for greater visual/aural expression in the film, but I also admit that my ignorance of French culture may mean I make mistakes in seeing/not seeing what these might be.

    Re the English accent question, my point is that I can think of many examples of Hollywood or UK films where accents aren’t necessarily ‘explained’, usually because the star actor is well-known to the audience – Sean Connery is the most obvious example. Mexican and Argentinian actors turn up in Spanish films and vice versa without explanations as well. I’m sure there must be a modern languages cinema thesis on this somewhere.

    I haven’t checked whether it was a digital print that I saw, but it’s quite possible that the digital and analogue prints look different, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is another version with more contrast than the one I saw.

    Posted by venicelion | November 2, 2008, 18:02
  3. The National Media Museum also showed the digital print and suggested that it was washed out – nevertheless it was very popular. They are bringing it back, but on an analogue print this time.

    Posted by venicelion | November 7, 2008, 21:49
    • I saw the film in a 35mm print. I thought the colour pallete was deliberate, to reflect the emotional development. Cetrtainly in the print I saw there is a increased warmth in the colours by the end of the film.
      I found the cast impressive, but especailly the two female leads.
      As for the melodrama, there is a problem in the plots resolution. And there has been quite a lot of comment on the Web regarding this. However, what it sets up is the “coming home” motif, which is such a constant of endings in melodrama,
      We had the film for a Dayschool at Bradford, and it went down well generally: it also sparked a lot of discussion.

      Posted by keith1942 | June 30, 2009, 09:03

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