Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
This debut feature by screenwriter-director Philippe Claudel might seem slow moving to an American audience, but it is as rewarding as sitting on a beach at dawn and waiting for the sun to rise. Superfi cially resembling Rachel Getting Married, in that both films deal with two sisters who have been separated for several years and by the guilt borne by one, this is uniquely French, following a very different arc. From the moment when the two meet at a train station we learn bit by bit the reason that Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) has not seen her older sister Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas)since she was a child 15 years earlier—and why their parents had raised Lea as an only child, cutting off all communication with Juliette.
Juliette has been in prison for all those years, and it takes a while longer before we learn the reason—both for the latter’s imprisonment and the reason why there has not been any contact between the two. Apparently Juliette had communicated with her sister, who had then invited her to come and live with her husband and two small children, plus Luc’s elderly father. We see also why Léa ‘s husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is uncomfortable around his sister-in-law. The couple have two adopted Vietnamese little girls, and Luc is very hesitant about leaving them in Juliette’s care when he and Lea go out. The girls, pesky and overly curious at times, have no such reservations about their aunt, quickly warming to her. Luc and Léa are also uncomfortable at introducing Juliette into their circle of friends. They live in the small city of Nancy where people know everything about one another, so when a dinner party member keeps insisting on finding out from her where she has been for so many years, the atmosphere becomes very tense—even more so when Juliette blurts out “In prison!”
She leaves the table, and one of the guests Michel (Laurent Grevill) follows her out to have a talk. He is a colleague of Léa ‘s at the university where they both are professors of literature. He has taught in a prison, so he tries to put her at ease by assuring her that he has at least some understanding of her feelings. Another man who also wants to help Juliette reintegrate into society is her kindly probation officer Capitaine Fauré (Frederic Pierrot), who to put her more at ease, after their first interview, meets with her in a cafe rather than his office. The setting of their first encounter is important, however, because he has a large wall photograph of a beautiful river. When Juliette notices it, he tells her that his dream is to someday go and visit the site. This yearning for freedom is akin to hers, and becomes very poignant when, much later in the film, Juliette learns what has happened to him.
The film will leave you thinking not only about Juliette, her guilt and attempt to move beyond the rigid judgment of society, but perhaps about all ex-offenders attempting to move on with their lives. Is it enough that they have paid for their crime once, or must they continually be punished by a society uncertain about them and their future intentions? As I think about the film, the words of Frederick William Faber’s great hymn come to mind: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea; There’s a kindness in His justice, Which is more than liberty.” Will Juliette find the kind of acceptance that Fr. Faber celebrates? Would that she could find a church like the welcoming one in Lars and the Real Girl!
There are several spoilers in the following.
1. How did you feel about the way in which the filmmaker slowly unfolds the mystery surrounding Juliette? Puzzled? Uncomfortable? How is this an effective story-telling technique?
2. Were you wondering why Luc was so anxious about leaving the girls in the care of his sister-in-law? How is this anxiety or suspicion magnified by the social worker and human resource interviewing Juliette?
3. What did you think of the parole officer? That he might become the love interest for Juliette? How do we see his sensitivity for those under his care? What does the large wall photo of the river reveal about him? Judging by his fate, would you say that he also felt imprisoned?
4. What do you think of Michel? How is he, along with the parole officer, an agent of grace?
5. In the art museum sequence what do we see above Juliette and Michel? What does this add to the story—a spiritual dimension? Or, maybe better, does it underline that dimension already running through the film?
6. How is healing not just an individual affair, but a social process as well? Who contributes to Juliette’s healing—and how? How might even the little girls make an important contribution? How does the film show that we need to know a great deal about a person’s circumstances when they contribute a crime before judging or, better, assessing them?
7. Going back to question 2, how do we see society’s harsh judgment in the film? Contrast this with that in Faber’s hymn. The original hymn contains 12 verses, congregations in those far gone days apparently either having more time, or willing to take it, when they sang hymns. Here are just 2 left out of the 4-verse version familiar to people of faith: V. 10. It is God: His love looks mighty, But is mightier than it seems; ’Tis our Father: and His fondness Goes far out beyond our dreams.
V. 11. But we make His love too narrow By false limits of our own; And we magnify His strictness With a zeal He will not own.
To see all 12 verses, go to: http://www.scriptureandmusic.com/Music/Text_Files/Theres_A_Wideness_In_Gods_Mercy.html