I've Loved You So Long (France, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
I've Loved You So Long Poster

I've Loved You So Long is a meditative French drama about awakening from a metaphorical death. It's about how a shared past can inform present expectations and about whether relationships can bridge a gulf of years and extend beyond a tragedy that is in many ways neither understood nor explained. Writer/director Philippe Claudel's approach to the material is straightforward and free of melodrama, but he elects to present a critical aspect of the protagonist's history as an element of mystery. Rather than peeling back the curtain on the past to the audience at the beginning, he gradually reveals pieces of the central tragedy and what it means, and has meant, for those involved.

After fifteen years in prison, Juliette Fontaine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is coming home. Her younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), has invited her to live with her family, despite the misgivings of Lea's husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius). Luc, who has never met Juliette, has good reason to be uncertain. He and Lea have two young daughters, and Juliette's prison sentence was for killing her own six-year old son. But why did she do it? Why did she remain silent during the trial and offer no defense? Lea, who was a teenager when those events occurred, does not know. The Juliette who emerges from behind bars is a very different woman from the one Lea knew growing up, but she is determined to make their relationship work. Juliette, clearly haunted by ghosts, is slow to thaw and finds it difficult to exist in a society where her life is defined by a crime whose motivations are unknown and viewed by some as irrelevant.

On the surface, I've Loved You So Long is about Juliette's re-integration into society. First, there's the human contact with her sister's family. Then there's socialization with Lea's friends, followed by job interviews and employment. Finally, there's the leap of faith that accompanies moving beyond the protective circle and stepping out on her own. As her life moves forward, we gradually grow to understand who she has become. But her past remains shrouded in mystery until Lea begins an investigation.

Because I've Loved You So Long is fundamentally about how some of the "little things" in life can be very big things for someone in Juliette's circumstances, it will come as no surprise that the film focuses on the day-to-day minutia of living. This is not a movie of big revelations and melodramatic sequences. It touches the emotions by developing a careful rapport with Juliette then gently unveiling the central tragedy of her existence. We are not asked to understand her until we have been given a chance to become comfortable with who she is now.

Certainly, there is a political component to the movie. One reason I've Loved You So Long keeps the details of Juliette's crime secret until the last act is to explore the question of how society should treat someone who has served her time. Juliette may be cool and distant, but she is in every way a polite, model worker. She is distrusted by some, dismissed by others, and misunderstood by nearly all. When someone has paid his or her debt to society, does that person deserve a second chance or should she bear the mark of her crime like a scarlet letter for the rest of her life? And do the circumstances of the crime have any bearing upon how such a person is perceived? Certainly, viewers will see Juliette differently in the film's closing moments, once the details of her act have been exposed.

Acting is one of the movie's most obvious strengths. Kristin Scott-Thomas, who may still be best known for her roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient, has in recent years elected to recede from the high profile spotlight and appear in smaller productions like this one. She gives Juliette a real sense of depth and pathos. She does not seek to draw tears from viewers by histrionics, but her quiet, controlled performance may accomplish the same end with less artifice. She is well matched by Elsa Zylberstein, who radiates sympathy and whose character remains supportive and non-judgmental.

I've Loved You So Long is the kind of film that will bore to tears those who do not enjoy simple, unforced character dramas. The movie's action largely takes place beneath the skin. The pace is slow but not glacial, yet Claudel demands patience. Ultimately, I've Loved You So Long is uplifting, although one might not expect that from the thematic material. The production rewards viewers who roll with the shifting tones, explore the mystery of Juliette's past alongside Lea, and stay to the end. This may be a tough sell in a marketplace dominated by ADD motion pictures, but I'm convinced there's an audience out there.

I've Loved You So Long (France, 2008)

Director: Philippe Claudel
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill, Frédéric Pierrot
Screenplay: Philippe Claudel
Cinematography: Jérôme Alméras
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1