I’ve Loved You So Long
Chilly French drama leaves viewers waiting for the thaw
IŐve Loved You So Long
Directed by Philippe Claudel
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein
It’s British actress Kristin Scott Thomas’ face that haunts the Gallic export I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime). The film’s poster is a close-framed shot of Thomas’ face, classically beautiful as always, but pale of skin and drained of fathomable emotion. What’s going on in the bottomless well of those eyes? It’s a question that lingers past the movie theater lobby and well into the film at hand.
Thomas, adopting (to untrained ears, anyway) a flawless French accent, is Juliette Fontaine. As the film begins, she’s waiting at the airport to be picked up by her long-estranged sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein from Farinelli, Little Jerusalem and countless other continental hits). Léa takes Juliette home and introduces her sister to the happy family: husband Luc and adopted daughters Lys and Emelia. Juliette seems uncomfortable. Everyone else acts like they’re on pins and needles--all except Léa’s little girls, who welcome the sudden appearance of their never-before-seen aunt. In due time, we learn the one and only sure fact about Juliette: She’s spent the last 15 years in prison for murder.
Writer/director Philippe Claudel, in his first tour of duty behind the camera, has created a beautiful but slow-moving character study. Her eyes dark, her lips pinched, Juliette navigates her reintroduction into society with a guarded uneasiness. Once, she was a doctor. Following her lengthy stint in prison, Juliette is lucky to land a job as a secretary.
So what is it that she did, exactly? What led this quiet, gentle, unassuming woman to commit that most heinous of crimes? That’s the central mystery of I’ve Loved You So Long, and the film takes its own sweet time providing an answer. Drawing on his background as a prize-winning novelist and a professor of literature at the University of Lyon, Claudel has created something sublime, a film whose intellectual and emotional weight lies mostly unseen and unspoken. Much of the burden falls to Thomas, who must stow a cargo container full of personal guilt behind her pallid, impassive face. Icy, emotionless Juliette is a tough woman to love, and the film follows her lead.
Over the course of the film, Claudel begins to scratch the surface of his characters, allowing us to see the humanity buried deep in their tortured souls. But he continues to observe this glum journey from a clinical distance. The film spends most of its time in a mopey funk and only uncovers its “big secret” in the final moments. This leaves viewers at a disadvantage, unable to figure out how they really feel about this small collection of characters.
As beautifully and as naturally constructed as I’ve Loved You So Long is, it takes far too long for viewers to get to know Juliette, to crack her chilly, emotionally distant nature. In the end, when we finally do get an honest confession, about all we can do is forgive her. And given the tightfisted nature of the film’s few secrets, Claudel probably should have come up with something more explosive on which to end. It doesn’t make a lot of emotional sense for Juliette to have kept this particular secret for so long. (It makes even less sense legally speaking.)
I’ve Loved You So Long is an elegant film, filled with emotional restraint. As admirable as that restraint might be, it holds the film back from really hitting its viewers in the emotional breadbasket. Claudel is a talented filmmaker and Thomas has one of the great faces in modern cinema. Their collaboration is a fine one. But it’s not the sort of film for people who expect to find actual tears in their tearjerkers.