With sparse emotion and very slowly evolving detail writer/director Philippe Claudel’s mood drama reveals long-held secrets and passions simmering under the radar. It’s a family story sparked by the return of a woman Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) to her small town after spending 15 years in prison for an unspeakable crime that is not clearly identified. The film opens with a close-up on her face the shell of a burnt-out soul clearly still in a prison within herself. She goes to live with her estranged younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) who takes her into the home she shares with her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) his father and their two young girls. Initially there is distrust and distance. particularly from Juliette’s parents who disowned her and brought up Lea as if she had no sister. Slowly Juliette attempts to find her way back and is helped by the curiosity of two men: Faure (Frederic Pierrot) a local cop and Michel (Laurent Grevill) who are intrigued by her seemingly mysterious air. Her innate loneliness and bitterness begins to thaw as revelations about her past and family dynamic float to the surface allowing pieces of this intricate puzzle to come together.
Kristin Scott Thomas’ moving and luminous performance has a raw power that is almost indescribable. This transcends acting; it’s life lived. Allowing the camera to linger on her face no makeup in sight is something few actresses would be comfortable with. Scott Thomas seems to have traveled deep into the soul of this lost woman searching for the humanity and sign of life that is hidden from view and never threatening to surface. Although she’s English the star flawlessly plays the role entirely in French but it’s real power is not in the language but in its austere subtlety. There isn’t a false moment and when the time comes for some key revelations her emotional connection with the audience is palpable earning our sympathy unlike any piece of acting seen on screen in years. Reserve her seat now for the Academy Awards. Almost equaling Scott Thomas is Zylberstein as the younger sister reaching out now to make inroads toward a new beginning with the sibling who was taken away from her. Scenes between the two are utterly convincing for their complete lack of pretense. The physical and mental prison that has separated them quietly opens its doors in measured silences. Other actors have their moments especially Grevill who beautifully lets his own curiosity about Juliette define their emerging relationship. Hazanavicius perfectly represents the aloof attitude of many in the small town and his reluctance to let her babysit the kids is telling. Philippe Claudel is a best selling novelist taking his first turn behind the camera. Appropriately his debut film feels like it flows from the pages of one of his books shot in the melancholy rhythms of a novel rather than cinema. His choice to shoot so much in close up is a blessing letting us peer behind sad sunken eyes into the deflated spirit of this drifting human being. What gives his film such immaculate power and grace though is the deliberate sense of mystery he creates never revealing anything about Juliette’s past transgressions until he has to and keeping us on edge throughout as the story builds suspense and secrets come to light. Above all in this tale of two sisters Claudel is celebrating the strength and perseverance of women and their ability to be reborn. Indeed I've Loved You So Long is a small intimate story of forgiveness rebirth and renewal. It’s demanding but ultimately rewarding.