It’s so easy to fall into the dancing-bear trap with “I’ve Loved You So Long”: Ohhh, she’s acting in French! Ohhh, a novelist directed a movie!
But that only obscures the real achievement here: that “I’ve Loved You So Long” is a rich, full-blooded, exquisitely crafted drama that pulls you in and refuses to let you go until its final, devastating scene.
From all reports, the performance Kristin Scott Thomas gives in this film is 180 degrees away from the one she’s currently offering in “The Seagull” on Broadway. As manic as that one is supposed to be, this one is a study in watchfulness – a quiet, deeply sad portrayal whose stillness speaks volumes.
Scott Thomas plays Juliette, first seen smoking distractedly in a French airport lounge as her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) arrives to pick her up. It’s obvious from their conversation that this is a reunion after a long separation. But writer-director Philippe Claudel takes his time revealing the facts, though they practically poke through the characters’ skin, begging to be told.
As Juliette attempts to integrate herself into her sister’s family and their daily life, we gradually learn that she has spent the previous 15 years in prison for killing her 6-year-old son. And suddenly her new life takes shape in the audience’s eyes: as a kind of living penitentiary, in which she is imprisoned forever by the guilt of her action, or so it seems.
Yet she take steps to move on, as she goes through regular meetings with the local police parole officer (Frederic Pierrot), to whom she reports weekly. It is only when she goes for a job interview to be a medical secretary that we learn she was, in fact, a doctor before her murder conviction.
There are fewer and fewer films with the patience to let a story unfold gracefully and mysteriously, films with the willingness to eschew snappy, flashy editing to simply study character, rather than aggressively push plot.
But Claudel, a novelist, understands that it isn’t necessary to hurry – that if you show just enough, you entice the audience into the maze of this woman’s life. He knows there is satisfaction in a late-coming revelation that suddenly allows pieces of the puzzle to glide into place with devastating effect.
This is a movie about love – about its lasting quality, its healing effect. But it is also a movie about remorse and guilt – and the inability of the one to erase the other. Juliette has to live with herself forever; will she always be a prisoner?
Scott Thomas gives a performance that is achingly truthful and subtle, one in which there are flashes of emotion but few attention-getting moments of emotionalized acting. Rather than a woman attempting to hold her feelings in check, she plays Juliette as someone who has submerged her feelings – and finds that, in order to live life, she must confront the painful emotions if she is to have access to the positive ones.
Zylberstein is the explorer here, an archaeologist excavating the long-buried relationship with her sister. She shows us a woman – a college literature professor – who thinks she is digging for buried treasure, but must deal with the corpses that are also part of renewing that sense of sisterhood.
“I’ve Loved You So Long” does produce a catharsis and a glimmer of hope. But the journey – not the destination – is the point. And Kristin Scott Thomas makes a compellingly tragic traveling companion.