I've Loved You So Long
aka Il y a longtemps que je t'aime

Director: Philippe Claudel. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill, Lise Ségur, Frédéric Pierrot, Jean-Claude Arnaud, Mouss Zouheyri, Souad Mouchrik, Olivier Cruveiller, Catherine Hosmalin, Claire Johnston, Pascal Demolon. Screenplay: Philippe Claudel (based on his novel).

Photo © 2008 UGC/Canal+/Eurimages/Sony Pictures Classics
One of the year's major disappointments, at least if you consider it against the advance buzz, is Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long, a depressed, French inroad into the M. Night Shyamalan niche, insofar as the whole movie pivots on its final five minutes, which don't make a lick of sense. But let's start at the beginning. Though the coy camerawork implies that she's hanging out in an airport terminal, Kristin Scott Thomas's Juliette Fontaine is killing time in the public space of a prison as the movie begins, waiting for her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) to come pick her up. Claudel has been loving Kristin Scott Thomas so long (and who hasn't?) that he's beyond willing to linger on her silences, play the angles of her face, encase her within a beige and untextured mise-en-scène, and thus to mete out the details of Juliette's past at a painstakingly slow pace. In principle, these decisions are fine, however much they seem unlikely to spark much drama. Scott Thomas is as patrician and beautiful as ever, and those bolted-down eyelids, that wide lip sloping up to those diagonal cheeks, are a boon to any photographer. But I've Loved You So Long never puts up any fight against the idea that it could just as easily be a series of stills. The shots have no momentum, and neither their angles nor their rhythms have any interpretive purchase on the character, because Claudel is so indulgently committed to his slow trickle of information, which he mistakes for internal portraiture.

The facts, then, as they finally accumulate: Juliette was in prison for fifteen years, though she seems so little surprised by the world around her, even in cosmetic ways, that I never believed she'd been away that long. She was serving time for murdering her child, and apparently served the full sentence, despite describing herself as someone who stayed off to herself and out of trouble (no one, to include any parole board, likes a babykiller). She's now been adopted by Léa, a much-younger sister who was barely a teenager when Juliette got hauled off, but who now virtually hurls her own domesticity at Juliette, seeming proud of herself out of all proportion, especially since she never contacted Juliette in prison. Her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is patently hostile to the principle of Juliette's presence, not least because the couple share two adopted Vietnamese daughters, and if this were a Robert Aldrich movie, or even a Glenn Close movie, you'd be wondering the whole time whether Juliette will be tempted to off them. Instantaneously, Claudel defuses this possibility. These daughters, as well as the couple's best friends, a beaming Iraqi couple who welcome their own first child over the course of the film, are filmed and scripted with the kind of bland, zookeeper's passion for Benetton shop-window multiculturalism (Léa even names it as such) that gets in the way of Rachel Getting Married, but with nothing like that film's compensating energy, visual vitality, or incisive psychology. One suspects Claudel himself would shatter the diegesis and personally intercede if Juliette ever got out of line with these shining kids.

Failing that prospect, I've Loved You So Long sticks to what my friend summed up as its crushingly obvious "hydraulic logic" by which the first 90% of the movie is stuck behind a tweedy dam of repression so that we can anticipate, in the last 10%, a surging forth of everything that's not yet been said. Give or take an absurd scene of Léa castigating her university students for deigning to interpret Crime and Punishment without benefit of any actual, convicted murderers in their immediate families, this is exactly what happens in Claudel's film. I've Loved You So Long follows the same snail's-pace evolutions from institutional grays and greens to cautiously hopeful pastels, and executes the same slight rises in Juliette's hemlines and drops in her necklines that every movie that's ever been like this has led you to expect. Not for the French the garish bric-a-brac and whooshing hurricanes of Nights in Rodanthe, but the laughably "mellow" score of light piano and occasional electric guitar and the incessant, sluggish fades to black serve the same overliteralizing purpose, of trying to sanctify time-tested femininity as art in and of itself, and of seeming to give the audience what it wants (Passion in Rodanthe, Subtlety in this one). Unfortunately, it is never implied that the filmmakers in either case have any clear or controlled idea of what else they might give. If this movie is as patient, delicate, and introspective as it pretends, what to make of all the bludgeoning, obvious tactics that keep serving to remind us of its impeccable tact?

Scene after dishonest scene of I've Loved You So Long ends just when the characters would doubtless say something that would fill in the italicized gaps in the film's backstory, but Claudel cuts these conversations so that the audience can be left hanging a little longer. A case in point, though there are a dozen where this came from: Juliette delights a table of bad over-actors playing Léa and Luc's "friends" when, to block one fellow's drunken and bullish inquiries about her past, she admits that she's been in jail for murder for all these years. They howl, because they assume she's kidding, though I can't see why they would assume this. Laurent Grévill's Michel, a colleague at Léa's school, intuits that she isn't kidding, and he follows her out of the house to tell her so, and to confess that what tipped him off was his experience visiting prisons. I'm not sure about the sturdiness of that point as dramatic rationale, either, but Grévill's sternly ardent attraction to Juliette at least compels some interest, so I wondered what they would talk about once they'd wandered into the woods and exchanged these preliminary confidences. Claudel, of course, cuts, and not even back to the gregarious boors inside, but to Michel dropping off Juliette at Léa's house later that evening—meaning he's aborted one conversation in the woods and entirely elided a long private drive between the two of them, as though nothing of any interest to the story or the audience had transpired within these lacunae. Not even the spectacle of Juliette refusing to talk in intimate quarters to an obviously sympathetic if perhaps overly-motivated listener. Wouldn't you rather see Scott Thomas act that scene than sit in a café smoking another cigarette?

This is the kind of thing that happens all the time throughout I've Loved You So Long, as it avoids all of its crucial material and devises all sorts of cheats in the interest of runic, inarticulate postponement—although, as often happens in movies like this, Juliette gets a scene where she berates Léa for her evasions. "I wasn't 'away,' I was in prison!" she shouts, as though it's Léa and not the movie that's refusing to talk. Given all the lame metaphors that Claudel constructs around his central idea—paintings "imprisoned" in their frames and stuff like that—you wonder what a real Juliette might scream at him in his director's chair ("Prison is not just some simile, you fool!"). Some but not all of this could be forgiven if Léa's own history of disavowing Juliette while placing all the blame on their horrified parents, and then following up with her zealous, nearly vampiric solicitousness for The Truth became any clearer by the film's end, but neither Zylberstein nor Claudel shows any knack or inclination for doing this. Similarly, but worse, any insight is flagrantly forestalled into the grief of a mother who killed her six-year-old, whether or not through the cravenly "revealed" but still incoherent circumstances that are finally wheedled out of Juliette in the closing scenes.

She had her reasons, let's put it that way, but the reasons don't seem commensurate with the crime, or with the collateral crime she had to commit to get the kid alone, and the last lines of dialogue force a generic statement of purgation and resolve into Juliette's suddenly upturned mouth that's suspiciously similar to the kinds of false epiphanies she ridiculed in an earlier, much better scene. In that one, a case officer assigned to find Juliette a job made clear that she was available for listening, and then Juliette, drawing on all of Scott Thomas's talent for projecting haughty disdain, says something along the lines of, "I killed my child and haven't spoken about this to anyone for 15 years; do you really think I'm going to open up to you now?" Yes, Léa is her sister, and yes, Juliette is a mourning and guilt-saturated mother, but unless you walk into the movie relieving Claudel and his performers of any responsibility to challenge or deepen those personas or those bonds—even though there's not a single other thing his film is set up to do—you won't have any more idea, or at least I didn't, of why Léa deserves or even manages to hear any of what the case officer was sharply denied. Full disclosure: there's a giveaway prop that suddenly pops up amid a very movie-ish bout of house-cleaning, forcing the hand of everyone involved to talk. But seriously? It's the kind of slim, treacly, improbable device that might have helped Lillian Gish dig up the secret tragedy that Constance Talmadge or Mae Marsh was trying her damnedest to conceal.

All of this notwithstanding, the mute admiration of the camera weighed down by the manipulative slow-drip of expository information, soured in turn by the filmmaker's willful refusal to dramamtize or to characterize, and topped off with a rattle-bag of pretend "explanations" that come close to Frost/Nixon territory—"I'm saying that when a mother does it, it isn't murder!"—I've Loved You So Long and both of its stars are already being talked up breathlessly for awards consideration. "Can two actresses win for French-language pictures two years in a row?" you'll hear from a lot of agitated Oscar-predictors, probably including me. "Did you notice how flawlessly Kristin Scott Thomas speaks French?" you'll read in reviews by the same critics who can't believe that multilingual Penélope Cruz spoke dialogue in two languages in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. "Doesn't Zylberstein give Scott Thomas consummate support?" you'll overhear from that Supporting Actress campaign, as though wide-eyed and fidgety Zylberstein doesn't do her best to steal plenty of scenes from her deeper, reedier leading lady, while somehow ignoring most of the psychological problem-solving that anyone playing Léa had better attempt to solve. (Best strategy: decide in your own mind who Léa is, and play someone with more facets and more up her sleeve than this erratic mystery gal Philippe Claudel has assembled on the page.) Yep, I'm cranky, but I'm having none of it. Much, much easier than playing a real-life character as extravagantly mannered as Edith Piaf is playing a fictional character as unbaked as Juliette, whose interpreter's chief job is not to wear makeup and to do as little as possible within the director's envelope of solemn scrutiny. Scott Thomas is a formidable actress but you wouldn't know it, nor would you know anything else, even about the story or the characters most immediately at hand, on the basis of I've Loved You So Long. Grade: D+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Kristin Scott Thomas
Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury
European Film Awards: Best Actress (Scott Thomas)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Foreign-Language Film
César Awards (French Oscars): Best Supporting Actress (Zylberstein); Best First Film

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