A few weeks ago it was considered almost a certainty that Kristin Scott Thomas would be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long. That didn’t happen, and I thought very little about it at the time. Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m here to say that Kristin Scott Thomas was robbed. That Melissa Leo in Frozen River should have outdistanced her is bad enough. That Angelina Jolie’s breast-beating “Look, Ma, I’m acting!” high jinks in Changeling did is downright shameful. No matter—the performance and the film (which ought to be up for Foreign Language Film) are their own justification.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, a woman who has spent the last 15 years in prison for the murder of her 6-year-old son. The film opens with Juliette—fresh out of prison on parole—meeting up with her younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), after all those years. Both women are understandably nervous—something that becomes even more understandable when we learn that the family had forbidden Léa to even write to Juliette, telling her that her sister “no longer existed.” Juliette, of course, took this as simple desertion, having no way of knowing why she’d never heard from Léa. But after all this, Léa decides to invite Juliette to live with her, her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), his silent (from a stroke) father (Jean-Claude Arnaud) and their two adopted Vietnamese daughters (“We’re a real Benetton family”).
The film essentially follows Juliette’s attempts to get some semblance of her life back and become part of the world again. This involves not only finding a job (women who’ve murdered their children are not high on most employers’ lists), but also earning the trust of her brother-in-law as concerns the safety of his own children, and simply feeling comfortable as a more or less free person once again. At the center of it all is the single question that hangs over everything: Why did Juliette kill her son?
In this regard, the film is structured as a mystery, though not an especially effective one. Chances are you’ll have worked the answer out long before it’s laid out for you, but the structure serves the film well in other ways. It’s used to generate isolated moments of suspense throughout the film that work wonderfully well. Will Juliette be “outed” as a murderer to Léa and Luc’s children and friends? Can she really be trusted with the daughters? How will people react to her when—or if—they learn the truth about her? Even the question of whether or not she can hold a job once she gets one takes on surprising suspense, as does a question of why a potential friend (and more), Michel (Laurent Grévill, Look at Me), seems to suddenly brush her off, especially since this happens after he realizes Juliette’s been in prison and why.
The detail in I’ve Loved You So Long is incredible. There’s a tightness of structure that makes no moment seem inessential. And there’s a subtle literary style to the scripting that is richly rewarding. Note for example Juliette’s response to Michel when he tries to kiss her goodnight and then place it in context with the final line in the film. Note, too, the name of Juliette’s sympathetic—and very odd—parole officer and the name of the composer whose piano duet she and Léa used to play together. The film is filled with wonderful touches like these, which is perhaps not surprising, since writer-director Philippe Claudel is a novelist turned filmmaker. More surprising is what an accomplished filmmaker he is first time at bat. This is solid, fluid and very visual filmmaking from a director with an apparently natural understanding of the medium.
Claudel is blessed with a superb cast in every regard—and with a performance of delicacy and nuance in the case of Scott Thomas, who knows just how much to show of her character’s true self at any given moment. But performances aren’t created in a vacuum, and directors have a great impact on what the actors in their films accomplish. Put simply, these people didn’t direct themselves.
Altogether I’ve Loved You So Long is something of a great work, and one I’d be inclined to give the full five-star rating to were it not for Claudel’s decision to have the film backed with an often intrusive guitar score by Jean-Louis Albert. Every time Albert punched up the drama with an outburst of guitar, I was dragged right out the movie. Apart from that, it’s a film about which I have no complaints. Even with that one reservation, it’s a film I recommend in the strongest possible terms. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and smoking.