French screenwriter Philippe Claudel's superb directorial debut, I've Loved You So Long, arrives in Memphis this week after a long delay.
Part character study, part family melodrama, part psychological suspense story, the film screened for critics several months ago and was initially set to open in November. It was pushed into early 2009, likely in anticipation that an Oscar nomination for its star, Kristin Scott Thomas, would help it find a larger audience. That bid never came, but it would be a shame to let the academy's misjudgment let this terrific little movie get lost.
A British actress probably best known for her work in the ultimate Oscar bait The English Patient, Thomas gives a French-language tour de force here. We first see her alone in a nondescript waiting area — a wearied, ashen, makeup-free face atop a gaunt body covered in an oversize gray coat. She is greeted by a younger woman, a bundle of nervous energy who seems to barely recognize Thomas' Juliette.
We soon learn that the younger woman, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), is Juliette's sister, and Juliette is reentering the world after 15 years in prison. Lea was still a minor when Juliette went away, and you can tell she regards her older sister with something like awe.
The offense that put Juliette in prison is unknown for much of the film, and the suggestion is that it's unspeakable. Lea appears to be the only member of Juliette's family who hasn't abandoned her, and she flutters around her sister with desperate eagerness, but also wariness, as if Juliette is some kind of exotic creature she'd like to touch but doesn't quite know how to approach. The film's title derives from a French lullaby, and its sentiment belongs to Lea.
Lea brings Juliette into her home, with her wary husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), two adopted Vietnamese daughters, and a mute live-in father-in-law who becomes a treasured companion for Juliette due to his inability to question her.
Juliette is an unusually educated ex-con, a former doctor (Lea is a literature professor), and comes off as aloof, icy, closed-off from and unimpressed with the world. As she struggles to reconnect, Thomas and Claudel gradually peel back layers of the story and reveal Juliette's hidden self. This strategy and Thomas' paradoxically immobile, engrossing performance draws the viewer in, hones attention as you search for clues.
I've Loved You So Long is structured like a mystery, but this delicate movie with a tough core is really all about relationships. When Juliette's full story is finally revealed at the end, the payoff isn't narrative but emotional, a breaking of the glass that has separated Juliette and Lea for so long.
I've Loved You So Long
Opening Friday, February 6th
Studio on the Square