Naturalism in art is the French version of realism: both attempt to accurately portray reality (whatever that means). Their célébrité terrible Nicolas Sarkozy aside, the French are a somber bunch, and Naturalism tends to be a somber affair indeed -- it's generally based on characters who are mostly weak and pitiful, women and children who suffer horrible lives and die without redemption. This, of course, is a generic description. But what makes French Naturalism so consistently and extraordinarily good is its ability to embody this generalization while simultaneously moving beyond it.
How? With irony. The French have worked irony over with more thoroughness and nuance than just about any other people, successfully avoiding the trappings of melodrama. At their best, the French tell a sad story, but they tell it with a distanced, objective tone. The disinterestedness of the tone, make no mistake, is quite the opposite of indifference. They're disinterested precisely because they care -- about the subject of the art, about their art, and about the viewer. They trust that their “objective” portrayal of reality will speak to something true in the world, and that their viewer will understand.
Although writer/director Philippe Claudel likely intended I've Loved You So Long to situate itself within the tradition described above, it just doesn't fit in. As with many other Naturalistic films, this one follow around a pitiable female character name Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas), a woman who served a 15-year sentence for killing her six-year-old son and who now lives with her sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein). She’s an intellectual, but she’s also a classic victim of society.
Claudel executes this with objectivity and minimal sermonizing. He refrains from being preachy or passing judgment for most of the film, and he has faith in the viewer to understand the film on its own terms. The quality here is never outstanding, but the script, the directing, the acting, the lighting, etc. are certainly adequate. Apart from the music, an unpleasant and emotionally incoherent variation of the Brokeback Mountain theme, nothing here is glaringly terrible.
Well, at least until the final minutes. If the film ended as it began, it would have been much stronger. Instead, Claudel throws a Hail Mary in the film's final minutes, revealing a crucial detail about Juliette. With this scene alone, her integrity as a character becomes damaged -- she's suddenly deified as a saintly victim -- and the aloofness the film had otherwise cultivated is lost. Scene after scene, the film provides examples of people treating Juliette poorly and the inability of people to empathize with her, conforming to the exact saintly stereotype the vicious society around her insists she live.
Simply put, structuring the entire film around its revelatory ending cheapens the whole thing by obliterating any sense of irony. The best of French films generally display their creators' political sympathies, but they often avoid outright sermonizing by embracing the world's complexities. With I've Loved You So Long's final revelation, the film plays like a jeremiad against the cruelty and sadism of society. But at the very moment the film asserts so loudly its superiority to “traditional” morality, the film fits itself ever so neatly within it.