A magnificently nuanced performance from Kristen Scott Thomas sets the tone in Philippe Claudel’s equally subtle debut film, I’ve Loved You So Long. Focusing on the tentative reestablishment of a relationship between two sisters who have been estranged for fifteen years, this sensitive French drama steadily spins a series of quiet, observational moments into a fugue of uncanny intensity. The clean, uncluttered visual design of the film reflects its initial emotional containment, but belies the storm brewing beneath the good manners that its characters first exhibit. This movie’s modulated rhythms, much like the few drops of rain that fall during the opening scenes yet never quite become a storm, prepare the audience for a smartly calibrated game of withholding that is to follow.
Throughout the intelligently wrought script, there exists an undercurrent of unease that continually threatens to push this familial reconciliation into oblivion. Whenever a small step toward recovery seems to be made, a plot revelation occurs, jeopardizing the delicate relationship of older sister Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) and younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein). Despite the screenplay’s structure, though, I’ve Loved You So Long is too smart and too keenly observed to feel dependent upon the shock value that these disclosures provide. Watching these characters, one grows to appreciate how much Claudel manages to say with each of his concise scenes. For example, the opening sequence of the movie, which features the two sisters meeting at an airport, telegraphs a great deal of character detail without a word of dialogue. In fact, if the film has a great flaw, it’s that it truncates many of its early scenes. Too often, interactions are cut short, leaving the audience to guess at how moments might have played out after the camera stopped filming. Because we understand so little of Juliette at first, we desperately want to learn about her. Nothing that Claudel puts on screen rings false, but the mystery that surrounds Juliette is so captivating that we want to see more of her bonding with her sister, more of her sitting in uncomfortable silence as she’s judged, and more of her considering the possibility of reaching out to another.
Without a doubt, Juliette begins to dominate I’ve Loved You So Long, even though the film’s title insists that the relationship between the sisters is central. Kristin Scott Thomas is so overpowering a presence that after a certain point, she owns this movie. The dominant concern changes from whether or not Juliette and her sister will reconcile, to the possibility that the storm that brews inside Juliette’s head will be calmed. Scott Thomas has so thoroughly conceived Juliette that the film inevitably becomes about her interiority.
Throughout every moment of I’ve Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas is nothing less than brilliant. This is plain from the film’s very first scene, in the way in which she chokes back her tears as she first glimpses her fully grown sister. From the initial moment onward, she’s blunt and hardened, refusing to give an inch of herself. When she’s embraced by another family member near the end of the film, her reaction, a heart-wrenching facial recoil that occurs without any other physical movement, is a breathtaking piece of screen acting. As conceived, Juliette is an intellectual who refuses to suffer fools. As her past becomes clearer, she turns into a complicated monster – the kind who seems to as easily get lost in a good book as commit an unspeakable sin.
Juliette’s character is so intimidating and rich that the audience has no choice but to withhold judgment of her until she decides to present her case. Scott Thomas is an ideal actress to play such a character, with her coolness, her subsumed passion, her fierce intelligence, and her ever-present, self-effacing wit. Hers is a performance that bears genuine comparison with Streep’s in Sophie’s Choice; not for its technical marvels, but for its ability to convince us that a woman can be an endless vessel for contained suffering. Because Scott Thomas’ performance is so layered, it soon justifies the film’s tendency to withhold character information from us. This process of slow revelation allows it to gradually dawn on us just how completely considered a character Juliette is and how completely Scott Thomas embodies her. When, in the final scene, she says, “I’m here,” it’s no understatement. At that point, a fully realized woman sits before us on screen.