Two really astonishing stories I have come across in the last fortnight. First, Joe Hill's novel 'Heart-Shaped Box'. Neil Gaiman's blog recommended this ages ago and I finally picked it up. This is in some respects a truly nasty story - I was slightly surprised - but genuinely redemptive and one of those books that you just feel is 'true'. It's been badged as horror - the vengeful ghost is central and really terrifying - but I wouldn't even call it fantasy, just a novel of real life with a supernatural catalyst. I've never read anything more revealing about the effects of abuse and the way the abused can become the abusers. Oh and the vision of the ageing rock star as the central character also feels very convincing.
Just as good and probably somewhat easier going for the faint of stomach is beautiful film 'I've loved you so long' (french with subtitles). This has jumped straight into my top 10 films of all time. Even those who prefer more plot must surely be gripped by the underlying tension and mystery of the scenario where Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to live with her sister Lea after 15 years in prison.
We find out relatively rapidly that Juliette murdered her own 6 year old son. Each brief event in this film conveys a world of detail and emotion about the relationship between the sisters and about Juliette's adaptation to a new world, her sisters' loved ones, her social worker, her employers and so on. I know at least two people who have seen this and shown amazement that the characters can act with their eyebrows - not in a comic way though! Every character, however small their part, is a fully fledged person with all the contraditions that tends to entail - the parole officer with his dreams of great rivers is particularly poignant, as is Juliette's evolving bond with her sisters' adopted children.
There is also plenty of observational humour - the lothario of the local swimming pool, Juliette's expression as she confesses to her sister that she has slept with a man from a bar and even the moment of tragi-comic tension as a family friend puts Juliette on the spot at a dinner party about why they have never met her before.
Long before we comprehend the details of Juliette's crime, we have understood this 'criminal' as a human being. Kristin Scott Thomas' performance is a highlight in a pretty phenomenal career. Although Juliette's make-up and wardrobe are austere - we are allowed to see her tired eyes and lines - she is nevertheless unbelievably stylish (SO not what this is about, but I defy you to come out not craving grey cashmere and a suede coat). But the true heroine is sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who displays deep humanity as she takes her older sister in, embraces and trusts her without prejudice, supports her as she builds up a new life and defends her against all comers. It is Lea that I cried with at the emotional moments, and felt for as she came up time and again against Juliette's walls of independence and pain. The ending redeems not only Juliette, but most importantly Lea's faith. We are given a sympathetic reason for Juliette's crime, but she has still committed a crime of sorts against her family by never explaining herself and it is Lea who gives them both a second chance. Really beautiful - I can't recommend it highly enough.