How a drama about a convicted murderer being released from prison and attempting to find her place in an alien world could be described as ‘light’ is difficult to say. Perhaps it is due to a nuanced sensibility that did not want to nosedive into purple melodrama, or the mostly internal performance by Kristin Scott Thomas. Though a solid enough picture, and one that shuns exposition in favor of revealing background details through actual human conversation and realistic behavior, it does not do much with the search for identity apart from taking a conventional tack in the final reel with a redemptive twist that felt wholly unnecessary. Avoid the last paragraph for spoilers (or not), since I do feel the film is worth a look for the quality of the acting and for the way the particulars of character development are teased out with subtlety.
Thomas plays Juliette, just released from prison after a fifteen year stint, and from the opening shot, she is clad in a haggard mask that appears hardened by solitude and cigarette smoke. Very few words are passed, and what transpired before is hinted about more than expressed, as the screenplay trusts the viewer to keep up. She seems unsettled by her freedom and uncomfortable in any social setting where she is torn between the desire to interact and the deeper desire to be left alone. Her mask barely conceals her mixture of regret, shame, and the need to be understood. Initially, though, her primary expression is confusion at why she was let out in the first place, since her life is over and there is little point in starting over. In these early passages, the disaffection experienced by the previously incarcerated is well done. After her sister picks her up at the airport, even the most basic of conversations highlights the gulf between them:
“I finished my graduate work to get my master’s, and my husband and I moved to this town. That’s life.”
It most certainly is not. Over time, she grows to appreciate her sister’s help and affections, though she initially appears to be cold and distant. Isolation can do that to you, but she was isolated from everything and everyone she knew. “The world went on without me.” Most of these conversations are oblique, as everyone wants to avoid discussing that she was a guest of the state, and what she did to end up there. She has great difficulty speaking to anyone, and wishes to avoid any mention of the past for good reason. In a job interview, she states what that crime was, and she is thrown out immediately.
Eventually this shell cracks, and she is able to relate to her sister (The crack occurs when she assures her sister that ‘inside’ is not a preferable term to ‘prison’). Even this is difficult, as her sister had taken great pains to forget Juliette, and her parents hated her very existence. In one jarring scene, Juliette and her sister visit the nursing home where their English-borne mother is marinating in her dementia. After cursing at them both in French, she abruptly recognizes Juliette and switches to cooing in English, clearly not recalling her crime. This actually does happen to dementia patients. The underlying theme is that one can never go back, and that the past cannot be forgotten no matter how inconvenient or traumatic.
Throughout the film, the progression feels natural, and the character study of Juliette never feels forced or hollow. Kristin Scott Thomas remains luminous throughout, and is pitch-perfect down to the French language with a British lilt to accentuate that she was imprisoned in a British jail. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with no extraneous quirks to be found.
Despite the light treatment of the material, the film never really has the chance to soar – the conversations and awkward moments are clipped and edited into short, bite-size segments that do not allow the characters to breathe, as if the director was worried that the audience would become bored. The denouement left a great deal to be desired, as it ties up the moral loose thread that really was better left unfettered. You see, Juliette murdered her six year old son, which would make her a monster in nearly everyone’s eyes. During the film, you learn to sympathize with her and wonder what happened in that dark moment when the human side yielded to other impulses. It may be cliché to suggest that anyone is capable of a heinous act, but the idea remains fresh when allowed to spool out and remain hanging in the breeze.
There it will always remain, and the imagination of the audience can run riot with a blend of imagination and projection in how we would psychologically deal with this sort of a past. Then, in a last tear-filled monologue, Juliette states that her son had symptoms of a neurological disorder and was dying anyway. Her compassionate euthanasia breaks with the film’s prior compartmentalization of moral past and present, and casts the main character as a misunderstood hero who had a rather easy ethical decision after all. Perhaps you will disagree, but I prefer my films in shadow, with poorly demarcated edges. Even so, the film is quite compelling, and Kristin Scott Thomas restates her case as one of the most compelling and insanely hot actresses of our time.