Great Scott

I’ve Loved You So Long
Running Time 115 minutes
Written and
directed by Philippe Claudel
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius

In the solemn, touching French drama I’ve Loved You So Long, the bilingual British-born actress Kristin Scott Thomas, currently starring on Broadway in a much-overrated production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, returns to the screen, where she shines best. With mousey brown hair and not a speck of makeup, she plays Juliette Fontaine, a woman whose name delivers a more delicate lift than any of her disheartening experiences in life. Once a respected doctor from a good family, Juliette has lost everything she once held dear—her husband, her career, her child, her friends and her family. Disillusioned and baked out after 15 years in prison for killing her 6-year-old son for reasons she has never revealed, Juliette is released in the care of her estranged younger sister, Lea. The siblings have not seen each other for 15 years, but Lea, who is married with two adopted Vietnamese daughters, takes her in. The movie is about reconciliation, the power of family to absorb and protect and forgive, and the strength of women to heal and begin again (something they seem to be better at than men).

Lea, wonderfully played by the excellent French actress Elsa Zylberstein, is just as confused and shocked by her sister’s past as everyone else, but as an educated and sophisticated professor of literature, she’s less judgmental than others (one prospective employer throws Juliette out of his office when he discovers the nature of her crime). While the film catalogs Juliette’s adjustment to life on the outside, it also covers her sister’s adjustment to her. Meanwhile, Lea’s husband, Luc, a lexicographer working on an interactive computer dictionary, considers her a dangerous intruder in his space and won’t even allow her to be alone in the house with the children. It’s a house full of life, laughter, noise, spills, dinner parties and kitchen smells—the kind of place Juliette needs to renew her faith in humanity. But the contrast she brings to the table—depression, anxiety, distrust and endlessly agonizing memories that keep her tightly coiled—erodes the placid sense of family Luc and Lea have created. Fortunately for Juliette, there’s truth in the adage that you can never fool the very old or the very young. She is accepted without probe by Luc’s elderly father, a silent stroke victim, and the two adopted orphans—all of whom know what it means to be strangers in need of rescue. This is the first indication that Juliette might not deserve the pariah role society has assigned her. Eventually mysteries are solved, secrets are revealed and director Philippe Claudel wisely leaves the final verdict to the audience. A few tears are guaranteed.

This is an amazing film for a directorial debut, but Mr. Claudel eschews sentimentality with what practically amounts to quiet heroism. Like most French films, it takes its time developing character and building mood and atmosphere. But unlike most French films, it doesn’t meander aimlessly. Every character has complex shadings. Even the docile Lea flies into a rage teaching her students Dostoyevsky, accusing them of ignorance and stupidity while studying the nature of murderers. Even Juliette’s parole officer, the kindest person she’s met outside the prison walls, commits the most unforgivable sin of weakness—suicide. All of which provides Kristin Scott Thomas with a gamut of emotions to explore—terror, need, guilt, guarded affection, unspoken gratitude for any small joy that comes her way. Her performance is powerful in its restraint. In the dynamic complexity of I’ve Loved You So Long she even manages to make struggle look patrician.

rreed@observer.com