Dir: Philippe Claudel. France/Germany. 2008. 110 mins.
Fine-tuned psychological insight, walking-on-eggs narrative finesse and a devastating, career-best performance by Kristin Scott Thomas make I’ve Loved You So Long a more than impressive achievement by debut director Philippe Claudel, previously screenwriter for Yves Angelo. A top-of-the-range family melodrama sparingly told and austerely framed, Claudel’s tale of guilt, grief and redemption will have viewers thinking deep and weeping long.
It provides one of contemporary cinema’s rare showcase roles for a middle-aged actress, and Scott Thomas - crisply contained as ever, but very different to her usual cut-glass screen persona - could well get the sort of career boost that François Ozon’s similarly-toned Under The Sand gave to Charlotte Rampling. Despite its tonal severity, the film’s intelligence, intense emotional payoff and (against all odds) upbeat ending will make for strong export prospects, crossing over from art houses to smarter edges of the mainstream circuit.
Scott Thomas is first seen as a reticent, dowdy figure to meet a younger woman, played by Zylberstein. As Zylberstein drives her to her home, where Scott Thomas is to be a long-term guest, we gradually begin to understand the realtionship between these two nervous, mutually suspicious women: university teacher Lea (Zylberstein) is the younger sister of Juliette (Scott Thomas). Juliette has been away for some time, and knows nothing about Lea’s family: her husband Luc (Hazanavicius), two young adopted daughters from Vietnam, and Luc’s live-in father. Claudel parcels out information about Juliette on a discreet, need-to-know basis: as she goes to report at the local police station with sympathetic cop Captain Faure (Pierrot), it emerges that Juliette has spent fifteen years in prison for a crime so terrible that her husband and parents had totally cut themselves off from her.
Juliette, who initially maintains an awkward reserve, has to face the distrust of Luc, the resistance of potential employers, and the intrigued, gossipy speculations of Lea’s friends, who wonder where this mystery sister has been hiding. Claudel beautifully handles a dinner party scene, at which Juliette defuses the painful tension simply by telling the truth - which, of course, no-one believes.
When Claudel reveals Juliette’s secret, it’s such a bombshell that the viewer could easily have truned off, but the film’s delicate approach up till this point pays off beautifully: Scott Thomas has made Juliette such an intriguing figure, that we’re willing to follow her all the way and learn why she has broached such a horrifying taboo.
The film is artfully structured so that, while Scott Thomas holds back on revealing too much about Juliette’s thoughts and emotions, everything depends on others’ reactions to her. Above all, the film analyses the torment of Lea (a nicely low-regiset Zylberstein), whose entire life is brought into question by Juliette’s reappearance. An emotional depth charge is brilliantly deployed when the likeable Faure turns out to have been grappling with unstated agonies of his own.
The climactic confrontation between the sisters is handled beautifully, with Claudel taking us directly into the scene at mid-point, bypassing the conventional build-up. Viewers will get our theri hankies here, but Claudel makes sure that we won’t do it without also questioning our own preconceptions about moral choice: dialogue allusions to Racine and Dostoevsky make it clear what kind of thematic material the film is grappling with.
It’s easy to feel a little oppressed by Jerome Almeras’s sombre shooting style, with its reduced colour palette, which aims for, but doesn’t quite equal, the hardcore austerity of, say, the Dardenne brothers or Kieslowski. Despite the uncompromising theme, Claudel at times can’t resist sweetening the tone, notably in Jean-Louis Aubert’s too-soft guitar score, and occasionally gives us a little too much cuteness from the winning Lise Segur, as Lea’s little daughter. But the sheer control of Scott Thomas’s performance, with its occasional discreet flashes of self-knowing wit, is marvellous to behold, confirming her as one of the very best on the international scene.
France 3 Cinema
Director of photography
Kristin Scott Thomas