Put a so-so movie in a foreign language, slap a few subtitles on, throw in some Oscar buzz, and American critics will think it's better than it is. Case in point: Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long, a beautifully acted but otherwise uninspired French melodrama about two estranged sisters reconnecting in the shadow of a secret that's not nearly as juicy as it should be.
Let's start with what actually deserves accolades: As Juliette, who goes to live with her younger sister (the excellent Elsa Zylberstein) after a 15-year prison sentence, Kristin Scott Thomas is tremendous. Shuffling around defensively, reacquainting herself with everyday codes of small talk, job interviews, and one-night stands, Juliette is like a haunted alien navigating a new planet. A lesser actress might have made the character overly hostile or weepy, but Thomas, her patrician beauty ravaged by grief and lack of makeup, plays her as a study in numbness gradually wearing off.
Too bad the rest of the movie is so middlebrow and blah. The story is ripe with tantalizingly creepy questions about Juliette's crime, her motivations, and her sister's reluctance to ask questions; a more daring, visually rigorous filmmaker might have made this stuff shiver with mystery and paranoia. But Claudel (a novelist trying his hand at directing) delivers little more than a gracefully packaged, Gallic Lifetime-TV soufflé. Juliette's path back to normalcy is so predictably plotted and staged—and accompanied by such annoying acoustic guitar—that it's hard to maintain more than minimal interest. Scott Thomas seems to want to move things in a slightly scarier, more challenging direction, but I've Loved You So Long is too polite, too bent on being emotionally accessible, to follow her. There will be some terrific French movies released stateside in the coming months; this isn't one of them.