Sisters of mercy
The poster for I’ve Loved You So Long is dominated by the haunted, watery eyes of Kristin Scott Thomas, and so is Philippe Claudel’s movie itself. As Juliette Fontaine, the Anglo-French woman at the center of this still-waters-run-deep story, she first appears sitting impassive in a sterile airport, a cigarette trembling between her delicate fingers. Thereafter, her eyes linger in our minds, seeming to hover throughout the movie, like a double image superimposed over the action even when she is off-screen—which isn’t very often, or for very long.
Claudel, the French novelist and screenwriter directing his first movie, is methodical and unhurried about imparting information about Juliette. There are no awkward expository speeches, no passages of characters telling each other things they already know just to fill us in. We learn first that Juliette has a sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), a college professor, who comes to pick her up from the airport. We learn that Léa has a husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), and two adopted Vietnamese daughters whom Juliette has never met. When one of the girls asks an innocent question, we learn that Juliette has been “away.” And finally, we learn where she has been, and why: Juliette has been in prison for 15 years for the murder of her 6-year-old son.
By the time this comes out—at a job interview, where the boss angrily orders Juliette out of his office—we’ve come to sense that whatever Juliette is, she is no Medea driven to infanticide by divorce or madness. It’s those eyes that tell us otherwise.
But I’ve Loved You So Long is no murder mystery. In fact, when we finally get the whole story, it doesn’t quite ring true—it’s a bit too pat, and we’re not entirely convinced that the truth wouldn’t have come out sooner. But, as with Kane’s quest for Rosebud, the point isn’t what we find out in the end but what we learn on the way.
We learn, for example, that Léa is eager to renew her once-close relationship with Juliette (the movie’s title comes from a song the sisters used to play at the piano when Léa was a little girl). We learn that Léa was forbidden by their father to write to Juliette in prison (“She is dead to us!”), but that in her diary she kept track of the days her sister was gone—a revelation that touches us almost as deeply as it does Juliette. We learn that Juliette excites morbid curiosity in some, kindly curiosity in others, and that both her parole officer (Frédéric Pierrot) and a co-worker of Léa’s (Laurent Grévill) feel drawn to her, for different reasons. We see Juliette gradually bond with Léa’s daughters and Luc’s mute father, and she even, tentatively, earns the trust of the dubious Luc himself.
What Philippe Claudel creates in I’ve Loved You So Long is not a story so much as an ambience, delicately layered and laced with the unexpected. Claudel’s most unexpected touch, and his most moving scene, comes when Juliette goes with Léa to visit their English-born mother, living in a nursing home and lost in senile dementia. The mother (Claire Johnston) berates Léa like a stranger, but when Léa leaves the room for a moment, she rounds on Juliette and suddenly recognizes her, addressing her in English in a piteous pleading voice and tenderly embracing her. Juliette is startled and breathless, and so are we (I wonder if this moment, with its sudden intrusion of English, startles French audiences as much as it does us).
If Scott Thomas’ performance, with her limpid, wounded eyes and her brittle, angular physique, is the movie’s face, then Elsa Zylberstein’s Léa is, in a sense, its mainspring. The two are a close physical match, and Léa’s goodness helps us to see what she sees in Juliette. Léa’s need to reach out to her sister drives her, and the movie as a whole. When Léa explodes at one of her students, angry at his coldly intellectual approach to Crime and Punishment, it’s a bolt out of nowhere to the class, but we know where it comes from, and we can see what the long loss of Juliette has done to Léa. Kind, sweet and empathetic, Léa is nevertheless wounded as well, and the reunion with Juliette, in small steps, serves to heal them both.