Director: Philippe Claudel
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein
I’ve Loved You So Long comes so very close to being utterly fantastic that the destination is actually within sight as the film uses its final minutes to make a slight detour, offering up an ending that is so much less than the film deserves. Up until the last, say, 15 or so minutes the film is a deep and engaging character study, a story about forgiveness and rebuilding - but man do those closing minutes undercut that.
Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Juliette, just released from prison after 15 years and somewhat reluctantly reunited with her sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein). Though the sisters were close as children they had no contact during Juliette’s incarceration, due primarily to their parent’s insistence on obliterating Juliette from the family memory. Now their father is dead and their mother suffers from dementia and Lea happily takes Juliette in, embracing this opportunity to start over again. Juliette is less open, having become so accustomed to being alone that she at first finds it difficult to be around other people and expected to engage with them. Her isolation is made more complete by the elephant in the room, the crime she committed that necessitated her incarceration and must not be discussed.
During Juliette’s absence Lea has married, adopted two daughters, and made a successful career for herself as a university professor. Her life has been happy, though the severed connection between her and Juliette has always weighed heavily on her. Welcoming Juliette into her home, she walks on eggshells, not wanting to upset the delicate balance that exists between them. Slowly and with help from Lea and her family, as well as her parole officer and Michel (Laurent Grevill), a colleague of Lea’s, Juliette begins to ease back into the world, warming to the company of others and starting to find happiness. We know that she has done something terrible, but we also see how she continues to suffer for it and we believe that she has been rehabilitated, that she deserves a second chance. And then... well, read no farther unless you’re willing to have the ending spoiled.
Juliette was once a doctor and went to prison for murdering her six-year-old son, Pierre. Lea’s attempts to reconcile her love for her sister with her horror at her sister’s actions drive a fair bit of the story, particularly since she herself is now a mother and has Juliette under the same roof as her daughters, one of whom is about the same age as Pierre was when he died. This element of the story is very strong because it’s very realistic; one act, no matter how horrible, cannot erase everything Juliette was to Lea beforehand. It complicates their relationship, it defies Lea’s ability to understand, but it cannot prevent her from continuing to love her sister. What the film does at the end is uncomplicate things considerably by revealing that Juliette’s act was not an act of murder but of mercy as she had discovered that Pierre was suffering from a fatal illness. It’s an unnecessary twist and feels a bit like a cheat.
Thinking about this film afterwards, I was reminded of two others: The Contender and Citizen Ruth. In The Contender Joan Allen stars as a politician who finds herself the subject of a sex scandal and refuses to confirm or deny the allegations against her because a) the events in question occurred 20 years earlier and have nothing to do with anything, and b) because to answer the questions gives them legitimacy. That’s all well and good but then the film has her admit to another character that she’s innocent and it’s as if the film is winking at us and saying, “Don’t worry, she’s not really a slut.” In Citizen Ruth Laura Dern plays a pregnant drug addict who finds herself in a tug-or-war between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups. Though the film obviously leans more to the left than to the right, it nevertheless cops out by having the protagonist miscarry, thus eliminating the “choice” that sparks the premise. These are films that not only lack the courage of their convictions, but also lack faith in their audience. So it is with I’ve Loved You So Long which spends most of its running time arguing that rehabilitation is possible only to pull the rug out from under its premise by revealing that its subject never needed to be rehabilitated in the first place.
Despite problems with the ending, the film is nevertheless very good. Scott Thomas renders a performance of beautiful restraint, playing a character so accustomed to isolation that she seems to be completely locked inside herself. There is a wonderful scene wherein Juliette and Lea go to visit their mother and during which Scott Thomas has the opportunity to display a host of emotions, doing so entirely with her face and through body language. The performance moves easily from hardness to absolute fragility, sometimes suggesting both at the same time. As she slowly begins to let people into her life – and let herself into theirs – we come to care about her and her struggle to fit herself back into the world and because of that we don’t need the film to give her this easy out.