Carnal passion has never been Thomas' strong suit, which may be why she rarely gets top billing. Though she lacked the transgressive heat to play an unfaithful wife in Anthony Minghella's wan The English Patient, there was something weirdly compelling about her pairing with the equally impacted Ralph Fiennes. And as Juliette, a Frenchwoman newly released from prison in Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long, Thomas is so relentlessly unbending that she almost had me believing the movie had something brave to say about mothers who murder their children.
Whey-faced, gray-skinned, and devoid of makeup (on that front alone, so beloved of Academy voters, Thomas and Anne Hathaway will be duking it out for Best Actress come February), Juliette slumps in a small-town French airport lounge in a dated coat several sizes too big for her slender body, her blue eyes registering a diffuse misery that no one should mistake for defeat. When her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) arrives to pick her up, the two exchange awkward pecks on the cheek, and Juliette is equally brusque with Léa's less-than-welcoming husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), and the couple's two little girls, both adopted from Vietnam. Juliette sets out to rebuild her life with brutal honesty about the fact that she did 15 years for killing her young son and a fierce intolerance for tact from others, well-meaning or not, who have no idea how to approach her. Her recalcitrant candor is both self-destructive and a twisted form of survival in a cushy 21st-century world that seems to her like a foreign country. "Was it good?" preens the stranger she picks up in a bar and sleeps with. "No, not at all," she says flatly. "But it doesn't matter." By turns belligerent and indifferent, Juliette is a stubborn refutation of movie mothering down the Hollywood ages.
Uncompromising and full of necessary enigma, Thomas' performance makes us feel what it might be like to live out the rest of your life after you have killed your own child. So it's a pity that, before too long, the movie starts paying out broad hints to prepare us for the warming trend and special pleading that will let both its anti-heroine and its audience off the hook. Claudel is a middlebrow novelist of some note in France, and as a director, he capably evokes the leisurely emergence of character and the choppy ebb and flow of domestic emotion. I've Loved You So Long is a modestly satisfying tale of sisterly love weighed down by a history of family betrayal and mendacity.
Zylberstein, who has worked with Raúl Ruiz and Chantal Akerman but is best-known in this country for her debut role as a young Jewish woman in the lovely 1994 film Mina Tannenbaum, is touchingly fragile and desperate as the younger sister who, for all her worldly success as a college professor surrounded by family and friends, still wants nothing more than to win back the approval of the older sibling who once cared for her. Their quietly ambivalent struggles are the movie's backbone, but Claudel seems bent on making I've Loved You So Long as softly inoffensive as the beloved French lullaby from which it takes its title. Redemption shows up reliably in the form of a sensitive single male (Laurent Grévill) who has taught in prisons and knows how Juliette feels; a stroke-ridden yet somehow serene granddad (Jean-Claude Arnaud) who provides her with the quiet solitude she craves; and the requisite bad news that will shock her into sharing a secret that neatly slips the burden of guilt off her shoulders at a stroke. Solicitously shepherding us into the shallows of the therapeutic women's novel, Claudel tamps down his magnificently intransigent Hedda Gabler and makes her gently weep just when she should be baying at the moon.