Twisted Sister

sarris2 7 Twisted SisterI’ve Loved You So Long
Running time 115 minutes
Written and
directed by Philippe Claudel
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein

Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, from his own screenplay and dialogues (in French with English subtitles), serves as a dual vehicle for Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette, whom we see on the first day of her release after spending 15 years in prison for the murder of her 6-year-old son, and Elsa Zylberstein as Juliette’s younger sister, Léa, who was only a teenager when Juliette went to prison and was written off by their parents for her heinous crime. But with their father dead, and her mother institutionalized for dementia, Léa now insists, despite Juliette’s indifference, that her older sister come live with her and her husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius,) and their two adopted Vietnamese daughters, who are 8 and 3 years old.

As Mr. Claudel explains his story: “I’ve Loved You So Long is a film about the strength of women, their capacity to shine forth, reconstruct themselves and be reborn. A story about our secrets, about confinement, about the isolation we all share …”

Indeed, the film is so much about the relationship between Juliette and Léa that one loses count of the number of two-shots in which the two sisters appear, often even when they are not directly conversing with each other. Juliette is at first aloof and enigmatic in the oblique style Ms. Scott Thomas has nourished and perfected over a 20-year bilingual career in France, Britain and the U.S. both onstage and onscreen, a period during which she has never broken into the ranks of celebrity. She simply steals films from the bigger stars when she can, and bides her time on other less favorable occasions.

I was struck by the fact that the audience failed to applaud her on her first entrance in her current theatrical hit, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. It is as if they had never noticed her or remembered her in any of her films. Still, the audience, no doubt prompted by the ecstatic reviews, cheered her at the end. Nonetheless, I thought she was somewhat miscast as a prima donna actress in the grand mold and manner, a part that would have been catnip for a ferociously narcissistic diva type like Vanessa Redgrave in her prime.

Ms. Scott Thomas, I think, is much more effective in movies like I’ve Loved You So Long in which she can vary degrees of inscrutability until she slowly begins to open up to the world. I don’t know Ms. Zylberstein as well as I know Ms. Scott Thomas, but I was impressed by the way she displayed a tactful affection for her sister until she could explode in a long delayed epiphany of her own deeply primal yearning to be close to her older sister again.

But the picture belongs to Ms. Scott Thomas, who has become the center of attention because of the mystery of her long absence from Léa’s family, which also includes Léa’s father-in-law, Papy Paul, who has been unable to speak since having a stroke. He reads constantly, and is otherwise amiable. He is, in a sense, serving a prison sentence of his own. Very early in her homecoming, Juliette frequently expresses a desire to sit silently in the same room with Papy Paul.

Juliette also develops a friendly relationship with her lonely parole officer, Faure (Fréderic Pierrot) , separated from his wife and child, and yearning to explore the far-off Orinoco River to its still unknown source. One day Juliette confronts a new parole officer, and asks playfully if her old friend has finally ventured to explore the Orinoco. The new parole officer matter-of-factly informs Juliette that her previous parole officer has blown his brains out with a pistol.

This news shocks and depresses Juliette for a whole day and night. But she is slowly beginning to find some feeling in her life by bonding first with Léa’s daughters, and then with Léa herself. For a first film, Mr. Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long is an unusually mature piece of work with none of the usual indulgences of the novice director. He has made a grown-up film for our troubled time, and created a beautiful rapport between two gifted actresses. I recommend this film especially for the discerning moviegoer.

asarris@observer.com