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Philippe Claudel’s French film, I’ve Loved You So Long, opens at an airport where a woman smokes a cigarette, waiting for her sister. The woman is Juliette (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), just released from prison after serving 15 years for a horrible crime, the murder of her son. Her sister, Lea (a remarkable Elysa Zylberstein), finally arrives and they share an embrace. Lea is overjoyed to have her sister back; Juliette has trepidations, unsure what to make of her sister’s motives. After years in prison she is cautious and accustomed to being alone. They drive back to Lea’s home where she lives with her family. The two women thus begin their own separate journeys of redemption and rediscovery as Juliette tries to return to the civilized world and Lea does her best to reconnect with her estranged sister. In the film, Scott Thomas, the glamorous beauty we’ve come to know through roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient, and Gosford Park, delivers a raw, brave performance in what is one of the most moving movie experiences I’ve had in a long time.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Juliette was convicted while Lea was still a teenager. Because of Juliette’s unthinkable actions, their parents “brainwashed” Lea (her words) into disowning her sister.Â However, after years of no contact, when Lea is approached by the prison system to take in Juliette upon her release, Lea jumps at the opportunity. Not that her husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is happy about it. In fact, because no one knows or understands why Juliette did what she did (she remained a blank face during her criminal trial), Luc is rightly uneasy with having Juliette around his and Lea’s two adopted daughters. By moving in with Lea, Juliette is thrust into a big circle of family and friends that includes Luc’s mute father (Jean-Claude Arnaud) who spends his days reading books. Juliette finds comfort in the old man, as he can’t ask her questions and does not seem to judge her. For obvious reasons, Juliette feels most comfortable around people who know nothing of her past. Only when she is asked to open up about what took place does she lash out and show any anger.
As for Lea, she hopes to redeem herself in her older sister’s eyes. She appears willing to do what it takes to reconnect with Juliette and make up the 15 years lost between them. Although Luc struggles to comprehend his wife’s actions, like a good husband he eventually realizes that Juliette has paid for her sins and deserves a second chance. He also slowly realizes that repairing the bond between the sisters will not only help Juliette, but also it will bring inner peace to Lea, the woman he loves. Although unsure where the relationship will head, Lea is a character with an abundance of love and forgiveness. Someday she will learn the truth behind Juliette’s son’s death, but until then, she is accepting Juliette and forgiving her.
I’ve Loved You So Long is full of poignancy and is sometimes heartbreaking. However, I was surprised that it’s also a film full of life. Lea and Luc’s wonderful group of friends are passionate and full of hope. As we learn, they all have experienced their own tragedies, but together, they are able to move on and live their lives. The scenes with the friends are primarily shot outdoors, or with vibrant warm colors, and the minimal score lifts the spirits. It seems that Claudel, the director, wanted to touch your heart, not break it, but to open it up to the possibilities in life. Most important of the people Juliette meets is Michel (Laurent Grevill), one of Lea’s fellow college professors. Michel gently develops a relationship with Juliette and gradually, the two adults begin to date. They are two kindred spirits who could wander the world alone with their sadness, however, they meet and together they seem to carry each other through the days.
The film builds to its climactic ending in which all is revealed the pressure builds when Juliette uncorks the guilt and torment she has carried for 15 years. The final scene of the movie is one of the best acted, emotionally draining scenes you will ever see in recent memory. In this film, Scott Thomas, brings a power in Juliette that is lacking in so many females roles these days. She is in command of her life and damned be the person who tells her what to do. But this is a subtle, nuanced performance that involves little dialogue from Juliette. Indeed, Scott Thomas’ performance is done mostly in her expressive eyes and the way she contours her face to react to the situations around her. Scott Thomas is brilliant. Period.
But it’s not just her film. Elysa Zylberstein is equally effective as the beautiful, openhearted Lea. Despite the acclaim that Scott Thomas has deservedly received, this film is just as much about Lea’s rediscovery of the beloved sister that was ripped away from her when she was young. Whether you are a fan of foreign language films or you just enjoy compelling character dramas, I cannot recommend I’ve Loved You So Long more highly.