~ I’ve Loved You So Long – directed by Phillipe Claudel; starring Kristen Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein. Sony Pictures, 2009. French with English subtitles.
This picture is strictly not a cancer film, though it easily could have been. Casual watchers may even make that assumption (I did). I chose it for review because it deals so engagingly with issues of grief and the loss of a child. The tension of the movie hinges upon details of the main character’s secret. That secret is only gradually revealed throughout the course of the film. Juliette, played by English actress, Kristen Scott Thomas (The English Patient), has just been released after fifteen years in prison. She is met by her younger sister, Lea (Zylberstein), with whom she has been invited to stay during her transition back into society. The sister and her husband live in a university town, Nancy, where they are professors. They have two young, adopted Vietnamese daughters.
Initially we do not even know Juliette’s crime. In private and heated conversation between Lea and her husband, Luc, we learn the crime was murder. Understandably he is not comfortable having her in the house. The reason for her fifteen year absence is kept secret from their circle of friends. Later we learn that the victim of the crime was Juliette’s six-year old son, Pierre. Her husband testified against her at her trial for kidnapping and murder. To this point it is a little difficult to sympathize with Juliette, though we suspect that we will learn to. Juliette is taciturn, resentful, easily angered. She keeps everyone, including her sister (and the audience), at a distance. After the further details of her crime are revealed, it becomes even more difficult to identify with this sullen, seemingly amoral woman.
The emotional strength of the drama centers around the relationship between the two sisters. After the trial, Juliette’s parents disowned her. They withheld from Lea the nature of her older sister’s crime and forbade her from writing to her sister in prison. Lea wants to understand, to restore their relationship, but Juliette seems closed to this. Juliette engages in some casual, impersonal sex, an expression of her new-found freedom that does not endear her any further with the audience. Later she establishes tenuous, personal relationships with two different men. Her motives are suspect though we hope that one of these helps break through her emotional limbo. Everyone is the film is well cast – the parole officer, a potential employer, Lea’s faculty friends – but the movie belongs to the two women. Thomas plays her role without make-up, looking plain, damaged, and even a bit frightening. According to the French cinema aesthetic, long segments of the movie involve shots of her hauntingly sad face, staring and smoking. The dialogue is somewhat sparse but precise. Important aspects of the characters are revealed visually rather than spelled out with spoken explanations.
Juliette is not entirely comfortable living with her sister’s family though she slowly, guardedly begins to establish relationships with the young girls and Lea’s father-in-law, rendered speechless by an earlier stroke. Though we learn that Juliette had been a medical doctor before her incarceration, she is now just looking for a more menial job. She desires to move into her own place. Her growing relationship with her parole officer does not work out. Lea’s fellow faculty member and close friend is attracted to Juliette though he senses the frailty of her emotional state. We root for this one to succeed and watch it progress albeit subtly and cautiously.
The core of Juliette’s secret is not revealed until close the end of the film. I will not reveal it here. When Lea pleads that she could have helped her if she’d known, Juliette responds “”Nothing mattered anymore. I wanted to go to prison. Either way, I was guilty. I’d given birth to him and condemned him to die. And I had nothing to say. Explain? Explain what? To whom? Explaining is looking for excuses. Death has no excuses. The worst prison is the death of one’s child. You never get out of it.”
Thomas’s stunning performance sustains the film. It is full of nuance and contradiction, mystery and self-loathing. And yet it is played out so delicately, paced so deliberately, that we hang on until the end, hoping for explanation and redemption. The movie does not disappointment the patient. A moving, subtly executed drama. ***
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