“I’ve Loved You So Long” is the kind of film America’s moviemakers have all but given up on.
An example of the French tradition of high-quality adult melodrama, conventional in technique but not story, this thoughtful, provocative film is slow developing because it’s all about character, about the tricky, fragile relationships that make us human; about, if you really want to get down to it, the reclamation of a soul.
When you’re doing a film like this, you want the best acting you can get, and writer and first-time director Philippe Claudel chose brilliantly when he picked Kristin Scott Thomas to star as the shattered Juliette.
To say Juliette comes across as gaunt, plain and colorless is to understate the obvious. She has the unmistakable look of a truly damaged person, a ghost in human form who is in the throes of permanent despair.
Lea, the harried, cheerful woman who finally comes to collect Juliette, is another type entirely. As played by Elsa Zylberstein, Lea is married with two young children and a demanding job. Yet she is the unselfish one in her life, the person who is always willing to do whatever.
She is also Juliette’s younger sister, but the women have not seen each other in 15 years, the time Juliette has been in prison. Because of the nature of her crime, their parents declared that Juliette no longer existed for the family and forcibly kept the sisters apart.
Now Lea desperately wants to re-establish contact. As for what Juliette wants, that is more difficult to know.
So even though the terrible crime that put Juliette behind bars is a critical part of the story, “I’ve Loved You” is in no hurry to tell us what it is.
Instead, we first see how other people – those who know and those who don’t know what she’s done – react to her presence. We also come to understand how she views the everyday world she has been thrust back into.
She is in no hurry to get close to anyone, not even the sister who is almost frantic for that intimacy.
“I’ve Loved You” is not without weaknesses, including a colleague of Lea’s (Laurent Grevill) whose empathy feels a bit schematic.
But performances this strong and direction this sensitive make us simply grateful to have an emotional story we can sink our teeth into and enjoy.
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