Elsa Zylberstein and Kristin Scott Thomas
Novelist-turned-director, Philippe Claudel, embraces this cost-efficient tradition in “I’ve Loved You So Long” in such a way that he damn-near executes a masterpiece.Foremost, he mines the talent of British actor, Kristin Scott Thomas, so thoroughly that one walks away understanding, beyond the scope of the story, how acting certainly does have its geniuses, and Scott Thomas is among the top.The premise of the film itself is quite simple: We meet Juliette, a sullen, chain-smoking woman, played by Scott Thomas, upon her release from prison, where she has spent the last fifteen years for murder.Her sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), takes her into her home, enthusiastically and unwaveringly in the face of her husband’s initial resistance, to give her a place to re-enter society and renew their relationship, which was cut short when Lea was still a teenager.
Prison has done a number on Scott Thomas’s Juliette, a former doctor, as have the details of the murder, and so Scott Thomas presents us with a woman who is intelligent and sensitive, yet hardened and withdrawn.The balance Scott Thomas pulls off throughout the film is impeccable.Her disinterest in make-up and lack of concern for attire, and other niceties the world might provide, are mere superficial indicators of the struggles Juliette experiences even within the most uneventful situations.That Scott Thomas often allows us to see this tumultuousness solely through her facial expressions and body language is an art to behold.That Scott Thomas manipulates silence as a serious craft warrants the French equivalent of an Oscar and a note that this may be, so far, the best performance of her career.
While Claudel relies heavily on the talents of his cast, he also uses the traditional suspense tact of withholding exactly why Juliette killed as well as brilliantly building on numerous succinct scenes to fill out the progress made between the characters over weeks and months.He also has a keen eye for omitting unnecessary moments that may provide dramatic fodder (i.e. the melee that might follow the husband rushing home when he discovers Juliette has been left alone with the children) or build suspense, but instead expects the viewer to be sophisticated enough to fill in the gaps as he moves on to show us more productive key scenes.
The subtle, uneasy tone of the film propels this story’s development and our investment in it.Even as we are set up to settle in and sympathize with Juliette’s slow efforts to readjust to the world while our heart strings are simultaneously tugged by Lea, who desperately strives to love and help her sister, we are haunted by not knowing why Juliette was capable of the heinous murder she refuses to discuss, and so a question of motive unsettles the viewer until the very end.Juliette is at once a haunted Hamlet we suspect may be a little crazy and ill intentioned, and she is also the pained son who needs, but cannot find, alleviation in what’s left of the world.The only grace that may save her is Lea’s faith in their bond, a faith that surpasses the scope of expectation.
“I’ve Loved You So Long” deftly handles a range of emotions and characters, anchored by Scott Thomas’ seemingly “absent” Juliette.Despite her quiet resistance, many regularly come to seek Juliette out, including her parole officer, one of Lea’s university colleagues, and Lea’s older daughter, Lys.Though these relations do slowly draw her out, it is the primacy of the sisters’ relationship that makes this film special.One might expect, especially of a Hollywood-driven film, which this certainly is not, that Juliette’s redemption would come in the form of some romantic potential providing her with a clichéd reason to live and love again.But the love that is renewed and eventually finds Juliette is that of her sister’s, a love between siblings that surpasses the self-imposed desolation Juliette has inhabited and turned into a habit for so long.When Juliette utters the final words of the film, “I’m here,” the weight of that love is spoken, as is Juliette herself, and we are all left knowing her potential.
* Of special note to bibliophiles, Claudel subtly connects many characters through their relationships with books.
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.