I've Loved You So Long: Film Review

Directed by: Philippe Claudel, Runtime: 117 minutes
Grade: A-

Go ahead, please. Keep thinking that I've Loved You So Long is a soft, Lifetime style tearjerker. Let the promotional artwork featuring Kristen Scott-Thomas' soft features lure you into thinking it's a sweet little drama. Think about the title and make assumptions about its docile nature. But whatever you do, see this film -- and expect something completely unlike the assumptions you've made on its content. Instead, prepare for the real deal, a virtuoso exercise in subtle tension and domestic mystery that digs deep to the core of a woman's fraught behavior.

I've Loved You So Long marks Phillipe Claudel's freshman attempt at directing, one that should skyrocket his stature if enough people grasp a hold of it. It's the story of Juliette (Scott-Thomas), a recent prison release trying to assimilate back into everyday life. She's not trying anything complicated -- searching for a job, interacting with authority figures during mandated check-ups, and even trying to talk to her family -- but her brooding demeanor walls her from being able to smoothly integrate into the outside world. Her sister, college professor Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), has taken Juliette into her home until she can find her footing, much to the disapproval of her husband (Serge Hazanavicius) who is concerned for the safety of their two young daughters.

He's concerned because of the nature of Juliette's crime, a component that is revealed to us at a snail's pace in I've Loved You So Long. There's a mystery aspect to Claudel's film, one that adds a certain "whodunit" keel to the picture, though instead it incites us to establish our own thoughts on "why" she has done what she did -- committed murder. Trust me, revealing that little factoid isn't going to soil the experience; it's something that intuition picks up on a few minutes after Juliette hops into the car with Léa. Yet the way it develops around Juliette, the way it navigates the picture through an unnervingly thick atmosphere of stilted conversations and discomforting silences, becomes the mystery in itself.

Without the right Juliette, I've Loved You So Long could've felt overly cold or, worse, dry since the material is about as bleak as an English rainstorm. That's where Kristen Scott-Thomas fits in, and she's a pure knockout in the role. One of the toughest things for a director to do is to create a graceful transformation in a character smack dab the middle of a transition. Oftentimes, like in Billy Bob Thornton's role in Monster's Ball or Zack Braff's flip in Garden State, the actors can make the switch convincing -- but neglect the subtlety that reinforces their human nature. Scott-Thomas, however, nails it in pitch perfect fashion, invoking both the restraint of speech and the facial mannerisms of a person struggling to keep a rotten secret swallowed down. She embodies the many stages of Juliette's "rebirth" of a woman of sorts with very slight yet potent alterations to her demeanor, which comes together as one of this year's more affective performances. Scott-Thomas' role should, honestly, be taught in film schools alongside Maria Falconetti's Joan of Ark as reference points for restrained evocativeness.

Juliette can best be seen as a stick of dynamite with a very long, slow-burning fuse, while the characters around her are people who are either trying to trounce the spark or run away from the explosion. Claudel's supporting cast compliments Scott-Thomas' performance quite well as they gravitate around the thickness present in her company, especially Elsa Zylberstein as Juliette's sister. She's carrying her own demons of her life without Juliette, which pours through in her brash conflicts with with her students and her husband, also played well by Serge Hazanavicius. But she also interacts with many non-confrontational entities, primarily men, that work as hooks dragging her femininity out -- such as her pseudo love-interest Michel (Laurent Grévill). Each character adds something new to Juliette's range of restrained emotions, which builds into a rat's nest of odd wiring once she's got more than a handful of people inadvertently tugging and twisting her around.

Provoking her in these ways allow for the audience to build their own conclusions on Juliette -- judgment on her sanity, her resolve, and her amiability -- by carefully piecing together their own personal image of her pathway based on reactionary clues from her personality. Claudel knows exactly what he's doing with his script, wrapping us into a small-scale mystery that unspools beautifully. The most intriguing thing in I've Loved You So Long, and arguably the most rewarding, is that we're rarely bluntly explained what has happened in Juliette's past. She never tells us what she did to land her in prison as she drives home with Léa at the beginning of the film, but the blend of their rapport and the excellent concentration on dialogue with Claudel's script slowly lets the truth escape from underneath the rock that it's been under for years. I've Loved You So Long asks its audience to invest complex thought and emotion into the scenario, but it rewards them in droves for doing so when the answers are revealed.

Tension masterfully builds to a slow simmer in Claudel's film, but you've got to remember that Juliette's fuse, no matter how long or slow to burn, is lit and approaching a conclusion as she's stirring around her evolving life. It's obvious that her presence will explode within the claustrophobic normalcy of this domestic setting, which builds I've Loved You So Long into a rather ominous and utterly compelling journey though her hardened psyche. It paints the image of harsh reconciliation and discovery in Juliette's eyes, a woman who twitches at any form of human touch yet can't keep herself at staring from certain individuals. But as Juliette's spark inches closer and the tension grows thicker around her, it becomes clear in the 11th hour how a loveless, painful film like this can be entitled I've Loved You So Long -- and, considering the gentleness of the lead-in, it's surprisingly powerful.


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