The reasons to see this new French film, written and directed by Philippe Claudel, are the performances of Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein, who play sisters torn apart from each other for 15 years while the older one, Juliette, spent 15 years in prison. Upon her release Juliette is taken in by Lea (Zylberstein) and works to piece her life back together.
The film springboards off of Juliette’s crime, her difficulties getting employment and having relationships, her desire not to connect to other children because her own crime involved her only child. Without giving too much away, it’s something that, on its face, is unforgivable. That plain and ugly truth precedes Juliette and, in fact, has come to define her.
Juliette is deeply loved by her sister who cannot get past what her sister has done yet cannot let go. While Lea is more emotional and forthright, Juliette is silent and withdrawn. Somehow, though, they manage to connect, even with the years between them. These two actresses are seamless in their portrayals of the disparate sisters.
In a sense, they are all they have. Their mother has Alzheimer’s and dementia, with paranoid delusions of her children. What little connection they have with her is from the past, which is never explained but is alluded to in the rantings of the mother.
Fluttering about between them are Lea’s two adopted daughters from Vietnam. The older one, P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur) is as chatty and alive as can be, and is the focus of Lea’s family. She prods at the indifferent Juliette until a connection is made, as children are wont to do. Sometimes it’s impossible to be in a bad mood around a chipper butterfly, even if most of the time you wish it would fly away and bug someone else with its blinding beauty and delicate flutter.
Kristin Scott Thomas may do her best work as the stifled Juliette. Usually Scott Thomas is smiling her way through every film, cast as the life of the party. Here she must play a woman who has locked her soul up and thrown away the key. Life to her is going through the motions. She lost everything when she lost her child, and thus emotions are withheld and relationships are temporary and at a distance. It isn’t until the truth starts to find its inevitable way out that Scott Thomas explodes. That pivotal scene will earn Scott Thomas an Oscar nomination.
But about that truth. The only really troubling thing about the film is that it has a surprise waiting at the end that isn’t entirely believable. All of the pieces don’t seem to fit together and somehow it’s altogether too convenient. This twist makes the film very French, but it also makes it feel like it’s all been a waste of time. On the other hand, it is quite moving to watch anyway, despite the way it ends. It would have been interesting to see the story told a different way. Who Juliette really is eventually emerges and it is as unbearable as can be. Is it fair to have invested so much time in a false notion? Of course it’s fair.