Thursday, September 11, 2008

Novelist turns filmmaker. . .

I had a funny Proustian Powerpoint moment last night. I was at the Toronto Film Festival again, seeing a French film called Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, starring Kristin Scott Thomas (who I love) and directed by Philippe Claudel (here in the photo on the left). This was his directorial debut and the brief programme biography only mentioned that he was a professor of literature who had written a number of novels. When the film started and the credits came on (white type on a simple black screen), I had a flashback to a powerpoint presentation I did three years ago (which in publishing time is nine seasons ago, so forgive me the odd memory lapse) - because of course, one of his novels was a Dewey pick of mine. By a Slow River (the French title is Les Âmes Grises) is part literary detective novel and part examination of the devastating effects of WWI on a small French village situated close to the battlefield. The main character is a policeman who twenty years after the end of the war is still mourning the death of his wife who died alone, while in labour. Two other deaths from the past also haunt him - a young school teacher who hanged herself, and the murder of a young girl. The policeman is convinced that the real killer of the girl has never been found and he decides that the only way to put his ghosts to rest is to re-investigate the case. I remember that when I was book-talking this novel, I made the comparison to the British television series Foyle's War. Even though that is set during the Second World War, many of the same themes run throught the two works. Why should the death of one little girl matter when thousands of soliders were dying every day? By a Slow River gives you resounding and affirmative answers to that question.

You can read this powerful novel while waiting for Claudel's film to hit theatres (which surely it MUST - it is SO good). Kristin Scott Thomas is Juliette, a woman who has just been released from prison after spending a fifteen year sentence for killing her six year old son. She is picked up by her much younger sister, now married with two young children of her own, and has to not only re-integrate herself into the ordinary rhythms of daily life, but deal with people's reactions to her crime, which she has never really talked about - even to her sister. It's a very moving film about guilt, secrets, trust, family relationships and, as in Claudel's novel, coming to terms with a traumatic past. This is not a movie you watch for a huge surprise revelation; there are enough early clues to suggest why Juliette killed her child. Rather, it's a complete and intimate character journey and from the very first frame to the last, Scott Thomas is riveting. Every thought, doubt and emotion Juliette is suffering, is in her eyes and body language - she had me in tears by the end. An incredible performance. There was an instant standing ovation at the end.

After the screening, Claudel came out on stage to talk about the film and mentioned that he'd spent over ten years teaching in prisons where he learned that the line between what (and who) is good and bad is very fragile. The other highpoint of the night was the surprise appearance of Kristin Scott Thomas on the stage with him. Which was a huge and delightful treat; she hadn't made the Easy Virtue premiere because she's rehearsing The Seagull in New York. No big fuss, no red carpet, no media spotlight - just a quiet appearance to help support the film and director. And of course she's so elegant and beautiful. I don't care what or who she's wearing - though she looks terrific - I'm just glad she was there in person to receive all the audience appreciation and love.

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