Written and directed by Phillipe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long is a beautiful rendering of a complex relationship between two sisters who barely know each other, yet whose lives are bound together by a tragedy that’s finally understood only at the very end of the movie’s unfolding. Léa (the earnest, open-faced Elsa Zylberstein) arranges to shelter her older sister, Juliette (the quiet, mysterious, luminous Kristin Scott Thomas), when she’s released after serving a 15-year prison term for murdering her six-year-old son.
Léa dances around Juliette, trying to be unobtrusive yet yearning to peer into her face and her thoughts, trying to read through her opaqueness into her soul so that she can fathom Juliette’s violent act. Juliette politely averts her gaze; she arranges her face pleasantly enough, trying to meet the high bar of social expectation for civility and discourse, but she keeps her feelings obscured beneath an imperturbable mask.
Juliette, in fact, is an enigma to everyone. She wears prison-issued browns and grays in her skirt, blouse, and serviceable pumps, an outfit she rarely changes throughout the film. Juliette moves through her days of new freedom from one obligatory appointment to another, buffeted by the careful surveillance that structures her time. She meets her parole officer (Frederic Pierrot), a sad, lonely man who takes her to cafés to talk. Because he knows her crime but doesn’t seem to blame her for it, and doesn’t express much interest in her motivations, Juliette can be more open with him, even if their conversation remains superficial.
An intrusive social worker, on the other hand, determines to create a false intimacy that might allow Juliette to confess why she killed her boy. Even at her trial, Juliette had remained silent about her motives, rather than coming to her own defense. Juliette rebuffs the social worker’s presumptuous invitation to speak with a curt dismissal.
Perhaps because Juliette, who was a doctor before her imprisonment, is clearly an educated, upper-middle-class French woman (Scott Thomas carries off the French as impeccably as a native speaker), her incarceration for murder is incomprehensible, and forms the central mystery the film sets out to solve. Juliette’s refusal to speak about her crime, or about much of anything else, riles most people she encounters. She’s a woman who’s made her peace with her actions and feels no need to explain herself. But she breaks some implicit rule of feminine gendered behavior in her unwillingness to confess the motivation for her crime. Most people she meets think they can heal her by hearing her out. Others are simply undone by her silence.
At an excruciating dinner party to which she accompanies her sister and brother-in-law, the perfectly pleasant, intellectually inclined company laugh and gossip boisterously around her, while she sits quietly listening and smoking at the table. One of the more pompous, arrogant men decides that she’s been quiet enough and must tell them who she is and where she came from, where she’s been and what she’s done. When his demand becomes inescapable, Juliette quietly, matter-of-factly announces that she just finished a 15-year prison term for murder.
The group pauses silently for an instant before they break out in spontaneous, uproarious laughter, as though such a statement, coming from a beautiful, elegant, self-possessed woman, could only be a good joke. Juliette doesn’t correct their misapprehension. She smiles ruefully and returns to her silence. But in that one moment, her emotional isolation, the cost of the secret she carries, becomes crystal clear. Yet she doesn’t carry herself tragically; her self-containment befuddles those who expect her to need buoying up by proximity to their utterly normal, conventional lives.
Only a man named Michel, a professor at the same school where Léa teaches literature, can approach Juliette with empathy and understanding. He, too, has suffered a loss. He and Juliette visit galleries, where they look quietly at the art and let it speak to them. So many of the scenes in this film are about listening, about solitude, about the ways in which companionship sometimes only touches us lightly, although sometimes, that’s enough. Through Michel’s careful, occasional attention, Juliette gradually begins to come back to life. In one scene, leaving a museum, she touches his shoulder on the way down a flight of stairs. The gesture is momentous for her, but Claudel shoots it from a medium distance, as if respecting the character’s privacy.
Living with Léa and her husband, Luc, and their two young adopted Vietnamese children, Juliette works to be inconspicuous. But the rhythms of family life pull her in. Luc suspects her, at first, and refuses to leave her alone with their little girls. In fact, since at first I didn’t know why she killed her son, I, too, considered the possibility that she might be a bad person, a bad mother (god forbid), or that she’s waged some fight against “family” writ large. Luc’s gradual acceptance of Juliette’s reserve mirrors the spectator’s slowly growing, grudging admiration.
When she and Léa visit their mother, who’s confined to a nursing home and suffers from Alzheimer’s, Léa warns Juliette that their mother hasn’t recognized her for some time. But in a too brief flash of lucidity during their meeting, when Léa has temporarily left the room, their mother does identify Juliette, and grasps her roughly in her arms. Léa returns and the moment passes. The older woman proceeds to treat them both brutally, shouting them out of her room, as if confirming that families can be cruel structures of purported kinship. It’s easy, at first, to think that Juliette has rebelled against its strictures in a terrible, violent way.
But as she continues to live with Léa and her family, the older daughter, P’tit Lys, grows fascinated by her aunt and her silence, with her obvious emotional difference from other adults. They play piano together; Juliette becomes the girl’s teacher, and gradually, the child teaches her to open her heart again. The piano also opens avenues for memory, as Juliette teaches P’tit Lys a duet that she and Léa played together when they were girls. The sisters acknowledge this small piece of a shared, happier past non-verbally, exchanging shy, tentative warm smiles.
I’ve Loved You So Long, in fact, works because of how little it verbalizes. Luc’s father, who’s been disabled by a stroke and can no longer speak, also lives with the family. Juliette is drawn to his benign, silent presence. She seeks out his quiet company, where she settles into relaxed mutual solitude as he reads or listens to music. Their inarticulate bond is lovely and moving.
Juliette, as played by Scott Thomas, is one of the most compelling female characters I’ve seen on screen in some time. She’s made remarkable by how little she speaks yet how much she communicates nonetheless. Scott Thomas captivates the spectator with the quietness of her acting. Juliette’s silence, though, gives her power. She stands above quotidian life in her sad knowledge of something quite beyond the pleasantries and indignities of daily interactions. Only her duets with P’tit Lys bring her into the present. She arrives ruefully, at first, ready to flee back to her suspension in an unrevealed past.
Claudel often shoots Scott Thomas in close ups in which she’s smoking pensively, looking off into the distance at things the audience can’t see. Although what she’s thinking isn’t evident, watching Scott Thomas’s mind work and her face move, sometimes imperceptibly, is wrenching. In her silence, she accrues more power and commands more attention than those around her who blithely prattle on. In the face of her loss, in the face of her act, everything else is diminished. Yet she doesn’t judge her sister or her brother-in-law; as they proceed through their lives, she looks on with a poignant knowledge that she simply won’t share.
Juliette gets a job, ironically enough, working in the medical records department of a hospital. Halfway through her initial probationary period, she’s called into her supervisor’s office, where she’s told that her co-workers consider her unfriendly because she doesn’t talk enough. The scene is heartbreaking, as it’s clear how much Juliette needs a job that’s obviously beneath her abilities, and how much she’ll have to compromise her silent self to get along in a world of forced sociability. Her determination to keep the position forces her to play along, but it’s clear she won’t completely bow to workplace conventions.
Léa, though, chips away at Juliette’s remove, insisting that Juliette can talk to her. The younger sister’s admiration for her older sibling hasn’t been eradicated by their parents’ determination to erase Juliette from their lives. She keeps track of how long Juliette’s been gone in her diary, so that when her older sister returns, Léa can prove that her love has been faithful. Léa’s persistent effort to reconnect emotionally begins to wear Juliette down.
Zylberstein’s performance ennobles a character who could be played as an irritating pest. She performs Léa’s love for Juliette as utterly self-less and completely other-directed, even as she’s frustrated by her sister’s unwillingness to let her in emotionally. Zylberstein’s appealing mixture of innocence and sophistication, and her suppressed anger—which erupts in a painful scene when she’s teaching her students The Brothers Karamazov and one determines that murder is in fact redemptive, inducing her ire—keeps Léa from being a one-note, two-dimensional pawn of the plot. Her chemistry with Scott Thomas makes their gradually dawning intimacy believable. Juliette wants to trust Léa, but can’t let go of the magnitude of the weight she carries.
I won’t spoil the ending. It doesn’t reveal much a discerning spectator won’t have figured out well before, but it’s moving enough to leave for the film to reveal. Suffice it to say that Léa finally does persuade Juliette to tell her everything, which is the film’s one false note. As Foucault would say, we tend to invest confession with too much power, all of which implicates it in systems of discourse that entrap us in their ideological web.
When Juliette confesses her story and her motivation at the film’s finale, Claudel considers her words to be enough. She and Léa cry together, wrapped in one another’s arms. Michel rings at the door and Juliette calls out, “I’m here, Michel.” She turns to Léa to repeat meaningfully, “I’m here” and the film ends. Too quickly, confession brings Juliette fully back to life, too easily grateful for unburdening her truth on her sister.
I’ve Love You So Long offers a portrait of love between women—especially love between sisters—that we rarely get to see on screen. Neither Léa nor Juliette is sexualized and neither is forced to reveal their secrets by men. Their complex emotions tangle in ways that bind them whether or not they fully know their separate lives. Léa’s achievement in finally getting Juliette to reveal herself in some ways diminishes them both. I liked Juliette better as a mysterious, inscrutable woman who knows that speech can’t fix anything, who knows that memory is ultimately something you bear alone.
The Feminist Spectator