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Cinema Signal:

Choosing Mercy:
A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty
by Antoinette Bosco
(In Paperback from Amazon)
.
[Ed. note: because of the unpredictable way accented letters are rendered
in English language browsers, they have been intentionally omitted.]
"I've Loved You So Long"
(aka, "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime")

This serious character study by auteur and novelist Philippe Claudel (in French, with English subtitles) tackles a subject with all the emotive delicacy and depth needed for two actresses to earn Oscar recognition--if only there were good commercial prospects for the film in the U.S. It's possible that the exceptional performance by Kristin Scott Thomas could bring 'em in once audiences catch wind of the film's worthiness, but that--in itself--makes it a long shot.

Two sisters were separated by the conviction of the older one, Juliette Fontaine (Scott Thomas), and a fifteen-year prison term for the killing of her cancer-ridden young son. Now, sitting alone in an airport lounge after her release, she waits for her new life to begin. She is gaunt, no trace of makeup, no spark of animation or anticipation on her face, just the weary blandness of resolution. Her journey of recovery begins when Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) finally arrives to pick her up and take her home.

Lea's home is charming and copious, housing husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), her two adopted Vietnamese daughters, eight and three, and Luc's father Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud) who has lost the capacity to speak after a stroke.

Debuting director Claudel, with considerable sensitivity and insight, takes his time tracing the long road that an ex-convict, with training as a doctor and crisp intelligence might face--emotionally and mentally--in resuming a free life. Changes are required in a woman who has been suppressing her memories and feelings for so long--and they don't come overnight.

The world that she's entered for the task of restoration is everything a person in her situation might wish for: supportive sister, two smart little girls who learn to adore her, shelter in a positive environment and the rich possibilities of freedom. All of which helps her contend with a brother-in-law (Lea's husband) who doesn't want her in his home, dealing with her strange parole officer (Frederic Pierrot) who picks her to confide in, and the lack of understanding from potential employers who balk when they learn the nature of her crime.

The process takes time, and we see her slowly, silently evolving from the gaunt, forlorn, hermetically-sealed creature she was on her arrival day to a beautiful and vibrant woman attracting the attentions of Lea's colleague Michel (Laurent Grevill). She allows herself to slowly strip away her anti-social shell and learn to function despite her great burden of sorrow and life-limiting demons. Indeed, what on earth could have caused this exacting person to take her child's life?

Claudel makes clear what importance the role of luck plays in his character's transformation but, even more, the power of enduring sisterly attachment to survive the extremes of horror and misunderstanding. The love of the title is that of the siblings.

Anyone who has learned to admire Scott Thomas ("The Golden Compass," "The English Patient") will share my joy in the opportunity this leading role provides to demonstrate by art--not artifice--what depth she possesses, along with the fascinating bone structure that lends her beauty and the image of solid perseverence. This Englishwoman also speaks French with no apologies to the natives.

Zylbertstein provides the sibling connection with devotion and steadfastness, leading a fine ensemble cast of supporting players. One could compare the finesse required by Lea's mission to bring her sister back into the world as a trusting and confident being to that of a bomb expert disarming a live explosive device.

Get it now!
The DVD
The Blu-ray Edition DVD

There are, perhaps, two areas of discontent (mine, at least). At just under two hours, the film grows long. One can appreciate and respect the extended screen time to convey the subtleties and nuances of Juliette's ordeal, but the pace builds a degree of tedium, especially in the first act. It cries out for some cinematic elevation--though not at the expense of the character depth that is the film's sterling attribute.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Elsa Zylberstein and Kristin Scott Thomas
Sisters--a vital connection.

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