Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve loved you so long)
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grevil
Writer/Director: Philippe Claudel
Il y a longtemps que je t’aime tells of emotional and physical prisons and reconciliation; it is a story of two sisters who meet again after 15 years of separation and have to learn who the other is all over again. It is also a story of acceptance and love and how both can bring freedom.
Better known to her English speaking audience for her work in films such as The English Patient, Kristin Scott Thomas has made -- and received international awards for -- several films in French as well. While her roles in English are often icy and controlled – Gosford Park and The Horse Whisperer being perfect examples – speaking in French seems to set her free to show emotion closer to the surface.
Here she plays Juliette, the older sister of Lea (Elsa Zylberstein, of Van Gogh and Beau fixe). Juliette is a grey, weary woman with ominous mystery clinging to her like smoke from the cigarettes she inhales endlessly. When we first meet her, she is sitting in the arrival lounge of a small airport, silent and unseeing, quiet, and perhaps defeated. Lea bustles into the airport, eager to collect her sister, but this is not a happy reunion between long-parted siblings. They are both uncertain in the awkward moment and the viewer only gradually comes to understand why. All siblings have complex relationships, but Juliette’s past has further complicated matters. As neither sister is eager to rush into frank discussion, they take time to rediscover each other and forge a new bond.
Lea brings her sister home to Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) her husband, their two daughters and her father-in-law. It’s evident Luc does not want her there; a protective father, he is very uncomfortable with her presence in the house and doesn’t trust her with his daughters. His reaction to her alerts us to the fact that Juliette has something horrible in her past. Learning she was in prison for 15 years, we have to speculate at just what crime she committed and it is during a job interview that she reveals she killed her son. At this news we recoil along with her prospective new boss. Get out, he tells her; that’s too terrible; we have no place for you here.
Prison (as loss of freedom) is a recurring theme: Papa-in-law is unable to speak; Juliette refuses to talk about her criminal past now, and didn’t speak during her trial – both are in a prison of silence. In one scene, people racing past in wheelchairs contrast with Juliette’s lack of ability to fully participate in life, either through fear or reluctance. She has to make a decision: join life once again, or remain in a prison of her own making by keeping herself isolated. Other characters, too, are in prisons of various types. Her mother, for example, is trapped by her failing mind, locked in the past.
Scott Thomas delivers a finely nuanced performance as a woman making the journey from damaged self-preservation to healing and restoration. She never downplays the egregiousness of her crime and yet sympathize with her. Zylberstein is convincing as the younger sister who wants to be reconciled with Juliette, but also fears knowing precisely what happened in the past. One of their most poignant scenes together comes when Lea confides to Juliette that she and Luc decided to adopt children though both are capable of having kids. Juliette realizes they made that decision because of what she did. Scott Thomas and Zylberstein are well matched as sisters. Both are honest and believable in their roles, never resorting to overwrought melodrama or clichés when the scenes become highly charged.
The supporting actors are well cast, particularly Laurent Grevill as Michel, who teaches with Lea at the university. He of all the characters understands something of Juliette’s experience. He was a volunteer teacher in prisons and there learned two things: that no matter how long you spend inside, when you come out, you are changed; and that there was little difference between him and the convicts. Because he accepts her without judgement, he provides a necessary touchstone for Juliette beyond her family. Grevill plays sympathetic without being maudlin, and hints at Michel’s own shadowy corners.
This is a subdued, quiet telling of a difficult and powerful story. Philippe Claudel safeguards the gentle pace by fading to black between scenes, and music is used sparingly to perfectly enhance the emotional arc of the characters. He allows the existence of Juliette’s crime to overshadow the film, and when it is finally and fully revealed he offers no judgement or political position on the issue but allows it to remain a personal story.