I've Loved You So Long is tense and absorbing in the manner of the HBO shrink drama In Treatment. It makes you listen to the way other people talk as if they are your intimates. You hope to find clues about what they will do next, and suss out what they did in their past.
This hushed, quietly charismatic movie centers on a cultured, educated ex-con. After 15 years in prison, Juliette Fontaine (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to stay with her literary-professor sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) in the college town of Nancy. As she and her sister - as she and the world - struggle toward rapprochement, the writer-director, Philippe Claudel, maintains an elegant balance between rousing an audience's empathy and sustaining psychological suspense.
Scott Thomas is brilliant as the former doctor who yearns to get a decent job - as, say, a medical secretary - while proving to her sister's skeptical husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), that she can be trusted to sit for two adopted daughters. At first, the audience, like Luc, doubts Juliette's stability. When Lea's older girl asks her to hear an original poem, Juliette hisses "no" with an intensity that, for a second, turns her into a Hitchcock anti-heroine.
But does Juliette's fierce response reflect some innate violence or her inability to readjust to normal bourgeois life? Slowly, surely, Scott Thomas draws us into Juliette's observant yet cryptic aura, and increases our fascination with the deep, hidden self that she protects as both her private burden and her treasure.
This film teaches the rewards of patience for directors, for actors and for audiences, too. The compelling reality of Juliette's plight comes from how subtly and gradually she emerges from her carapace. We see her forge a tentative working friendship when she reports to the local police captain (Frederic Pierrot), a fellow with a troubled background himself and a poetic fixation on waterways; we root for her to develop a romance with Lea's affable, sensitive colleague, Michel (Laurent Grevil), whose respectful sympathy and cautious understanding triggers an adult, likable courtship, no mushy stuff allowed. One potential employer demands the truth about her crime and throws her out as soon as she tells him the bare facts. Even after she lands a job, her superiors wonder why she doesn't mix more with her fellow employees.
As in an existential version of "take a giant step," with every lunge forward, she also shifts back slightly, especially in her relationship with her sister. For Lea, whose parents kept her ignorant of the crime, Juliette is like someone brought back from the dead. For Juliette, Lea is part of the living world that abandoned her. For each, the other's history is partly blank - and after such a rupture, how can they fill it in?
The movie is about how trauma can turn the most accomplished person into tabula rasa. Claudel adopts just the right approach to his subject, mordant and haunting. He often ends long, unbroken takes right on the brink of histrionics. He implants in the audience a mood of exalted frustration that's unique and refreshing,
Claudel appreciates how powerful purity can be in a movie, and Scott Thomas makes that possible by keeping every shade of emotion focused and authentic. Zylberstein is equally supple in the more openly engaging role of her sprightly sister, who yearns for sorority yet doesn't underestimate the difficulty. The most disappointing scene in the movie is a big one: its climactic moment of revelation. Up till then, I've Loved You So Long figure-skates with Gallic finesse on the line dividing vital, complex drama from mere melodrama. Scott Thomas' harrowed beauty will fix in your mind and may even enter your dreams.
I've Loved You So Long
(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein. Directed by Philippe Claudel. Rated PG-13 for strong thematic content, brief sexuality. Time 117 minutes. In French, with English subtitles.