Tuesday, 30 September 2008

i've loved you so long (w&d phillipe claudel)

There's an intriguing sub-culture of British actresses or performers who cross over to achieve prominence in France. Truffaut used Christie in Farenheit 451. Jane Birkin is far more of a national treasure to the French than the English, as one suspects, is Charlotte Rampling. Birkin's daughter, Charlotte is carving out a niche in the Anglo-Gallic crossover culture. There will be others, sans doubt. To this list we can add Kirsten Scott Thomas, the cut-glass Cheltenham Ladies girl who shows in I've Loved You So Long she's capable of holding the lead in a French language film. The English have always found the French sexy, representing the nearest thing to exotic we had for a thousand years or more (even when the English were French or vice versa); being English one always suspects the French wouldn't find their Anglo-Saxon cousins to have the same allure (the French border Spain and Italy, so have no shortage of exotic neighbours, as Breillat's film illustrates), but their cinematic fascination with a certain breed of English women would suggest otherwise. It's perhaps foolish to speculate about what all the above have in common, but I'd suggest perhaps a certain knowingness, a cerebral sophistication.

Claudel, who apparently wrote the part of Juliette Fontaine for Scott Thomas, certainly seems to view her in this light. Playing a woman who's just been released from 15 years in prison, Scott Thomas's beauty is played down. She wears shapeless clothes, rarely has any make-up, and acts her age not her shoe-size. Nevertheless, she remains deeply attractive to the local men. Her parole officer meets her in cafes and talks to her about his Orinoco dreams; a friend of her sister's devotes a whole speech at a dinner party to her mysterious allure; and her sister's fellow teacher falls for her. Here is the film's tension, both in terms of performance and drama: to what extent can the piece hold on to Juliette's dowdiness and her alienated history; when should it let go and allow her to move on and Scott Thomas's beauty to shine through.

Suffice it to say, without revealing all, the film doesn't do a bad job, even if it opts for the ending that the market researchers would doubtless have found the public canvassing for. By clinging to the hard-edged, taciturn woman that Juliette is presented as at the film's beginning for as long as possible, it gives Scott Thomas a long way to go before she can become the woman we all know she really is. (Kind and loving and innately sexy). The scene where she almost savagely tells her sister's adopted child she won't read her diary is impressive, although it doesn't really suggest that she has the heart of a killer who deserved to do fifteen years. Claudel's film rides over the slightly rocky ground that it finds itself on when her sister's family try to come to terms with her crime before landing on the safer, affirmative sands of her subsequent acceptance. The fact she's not the woman the criminal authorities branded her as only confirms the goodness of her sister's entourage.

I've Loved You So Long displays many of the hallmarks of skillful French film-making: keeping the audience guessing for as long as possible (it's not for nothing that another British export the French cineastes admire is Hitchcock); seeking a psychological truthfulness which in itself suggests a quest for narrative truths, (truths that too much Anglo-Saxon cinema wouldn't recognise, let alone know where to begin looking for them); and underplaying the emotion with skillful editing, which in the end, only helps to heighten the film's emotional reach. Having said all of which, I've Loved You So Long seemed, like much recent French cinema, to be treading water: it does what their cinema does well, but it doesn't seem to be seeking to do much more. The self-consciousness of the literary references (including a discussion of Raskalnikov) felt heavy-handed, although to be fair, the Rohmer dinner party conversation alluded to French cinema's cleft stick - when so much works so well, what's the point in altering it, and if you do, what should you change? All this is a far cry from Godard; perhaps they need less cerebral English actresses, (Barbara Winsdor? Roland Barthes was a keen admirer of the Carry On films), who knows, maybe one day a French director might even cast an English actor, to follow in Geilgud's noble footsteps, if one could be found who speaks French.

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