"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.
The bilingual Thomas is best known to domestic audiences for her Oscar-nominated performance in "The English Patient." Her roles, whether in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" or "Gosford Park" or the recent French-language "Tell No One," have always exuded a kind of imperturbable confidence. But her Juliette is nothing like that, nothing like that at all.
"I've Loved You" opens with Juliette sitting in an airport terminal, waiting for her ride. To say she comes across as gaunt, plain and colorless is to understate the obvious. Juliette 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 it takes to make things go smoothly. Though Scott Thomas' is the showier role, it takes Zylberstein's complementary skill to make the scenario completely convincing.
Lea 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 reestablish contact, to connect with the sister whose presence she was robbed of. As for what Juliette wants, that is more difficult to know.
For not only is Juliette reluctant to divulge her feelings, filmmaker Claudel likes it that way. A well-known novelist in France before he turned first to screenwriting and now to direction, Claudel has a writer's appreciation for the nuances of interpersonal dynamics. He says he is "fed up with today's 'pulsating' cinema," believing instead that "it's important to learn over again waiting, patience and even seeing."
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, and we also come to understand how she views the everyday world she has been thrust backinto.
"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.