There’s a point in the film where Juliette (Kristen Scott Thomas), sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and brother-in-law Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) are at a large dinner table, and the group’s host discusses poet Arthur Rimbaud and filmmaker Eric Rohmer. The mentioning of Rohmer is maybe pivotal because Philippe Claudel’s own film is a simple character piece that deals with behavioral nuances, conversational dialogue, and a progressive story about redemption that, like Rohmer’s work, is bereft of tired genre clichés.
I’ve Loved You For So Long / Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2008) isn’t a Rohmeresque film, however; Claudel may draw some inspiration from an emphasis on realistic people in ordinary lives struggling with common emotional frictions and pleasures, but it’s a far darker film wherein he applies an editorial style that often joins scenes already in progress, and after giving us a glimpse of the psychologies at play, he cuts away; Claudel trusts the audience is smart enough to fill in its own logical assumptions of how an argument, an embarrassing situation, or a small remark affects a character.
The scenes aren’t disjointed however; the cuts follow a natural time progression, and some scenes exist to impact the viewer with subtleties. A case in point is Juliette’s decision to return the advances of a stranger with a quick afternoon roll in the hay. When her one-time stand assumes she experienced pretty good sex, she blankly corrects him, branding the sex as mediocre, if not particularly good.
As he leaves quite dejected, Juliette looks away, neither disappointed or relieved; the director leaves it up to us to decide how she’s processing the experience by exploiting Thomas’ often serious/vague expression as the only visual from which to draw a conclusion.
Within the first hour, we have a deep impression of how the return of a branded murderess affects a family, and how the family deals with the uncomfortable situation; we’re also given enough small moments of equal and important potency, and while there are no raging outbursts or confrontations between the two sisters and brother-in-law before the third act, we know (or at least imagine) there’s been several discretely shared disagreements between Lea and Luc.
Even Juliette's potential love interest, Michel (Laurent Grevill), a teacher at Lea's school, is sometimes handled with a bit of indifference because it’s her character who seems to have decided in the script whom she will trust; when the decision is made, it’s very discrete.
For example, when Juliette and the teacher walk through the local art gallery, Michel is seen putting his hand on her shoulder before the next cut, but the gesture isn’t even discussed or covered in a reaction shot because we know, based on a prior late night conversation between the two characters, that Juliette is taking things slowly, and director Claudel is trying to show us her increasing comfort in receiving affection without pushing the actors into some unrealistic display of gushy romance.
The mystery behind Juliette’s crime is handled well, although like a Hitchcockian McGuffin, it’s not what propels the film; the movie is ostensibly about a woman’s decision to return to the normal world, and the hard emotional conflicts she has to temper, process, and iron out in order to move forward. Details of the criminal case are revealed in the final fifteen minutes, but it’s Juliette’s final line (consisting of three words) to Luc that beautiful summarizes her growth, and the value in returning to her sister after considering her dead for 15 years.
Thomas’ performance is appropriately restrained, and the director creates emotional subtext and signals her psychological states by having Juliette wear muted colours and an ill-fitting coat, and walk somewhat behind groups of her sister’s friends, as in a country walk preceding the aforementioned dinner scene.
The film’s intimate tone is also maintained by Jean-Louis Aubert’s score, which pretty much consists of acoustic guitar and variations of a bittersweet meloldy – a contemporary and soothing approach that’s far more effective in supporting scenes and provoking audiences than the usual sad string music filmmakers tend to prefer.
Sony’s DVD includes a gallery of deleted scenes with optional French commentary by director Claudel (with subtitles), and while some scenes offer extra details of Juliette’s reintegration, as well as Luc voicing his displeasure with her and a far too low-key alternate end scene, the scenes weren’t needed in the finished edit.
I’ve Loved You For So Long is a thoughtful, provocative drama that assumes audiences are sufficiently intelligent to process an impressionistic portrait of a woman’s reintegration into society. Kristin Scott Thomas may have gotten the lion’s share of media attention, but her performance is part of a large ensemble cast that’s equally potent. Both co-star Elsa Zylberstein and first-time director Claudel won French Cesar Awards for their skilled work, and the film won a British BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Film.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan