Rating: 3.5 stars
There is so much that is great about the French film I’ve Loved You So Long, I’m willing to overlook its flaws.
As the film begins, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) is picking up her older sister Juliette (Kirsten Scott Thomas) from the airport. But there’s something stilted and tense about this reunion. Eventually, we find out that Juliette has just been released from prison (later, we find out what she was in for, but I won’t reveal it here) and that the sisters haven’t seen each other in 15 years.
These opening scenes are played beautifully. Lea tries not to smother, tries to avoid the wrong words, while Juliette stares out the window in a kind of mournful daze. She’s become hardened by jail, by the circumstances of her life. What remains unspoken between the two sisters—did Juliette really commit the crime she is accused of? and why did Lea wait so long to come visit Juliette in jail?—is more significant than what is said.
Once they get to Lea’s bourgeois-chic Parisian home (Lea is a university professor), Juliette meets Lea’s disapproving husband, her mute father-in-law (he’s been debilitated by a stroke), and her two adorable adopted daughters. The plan is that Juliette will stay with her sister, checking in periodically with a parole officer, until she lands on her feet.
Kristen Scott Thomas is an absolute revelation as Juliette. Hers is a completely un-self-conscious performance. The contrast between Scott Thomas’s aristocratic bearing—those high cheekbones, that slender neck—and her character’s crumpled, haggard self-loathing is striking. Before she went to jail, Juliette was a respected doctor, now she is a social pariah—and she knows it. Note the scene where Lea introduces Juliette to a friendly colleague. Juliette slumps and hides in her coat; she can barely manage to look him in the eye. Juliette’s pensive silence unnerves people. Later, when she gets a job at a hospital, the other staffers accuse her of being a snob. (Come to think of it, she’s the opposite extreme of the Sally Hawkins character in Happy Go Lucky)
The love story here is not between Juliette and the various men in her life—a garrulous parole officer; that sensitive university colleague—but between the two sisters. And their relationship resonates with love, resentment, and regret. (A scene where Juliette accuses her sister of having forgotten her is a knockout). Also, Juliette forms a touching—and important—bond with Lea’s oldest daughter. This is all part of her healing process.
So what’s wrong with I’ve Loved You so Long? There are a few contrived scenes—a dinner party where a drunken guest begins grilling Juliette on her past rings false; Juliette is offered an all-too-convenient chance to prove herself to Lea’s husband—but it’s the final revelation about Juliette’s guilt (even if I saw it coming) that cheapens the film’s otherwise understated insights.
Still, I’ve Loved You So Long has brilliant performances and much to say about our desire for human contact, our need to be listened to and acknowledged, and, of course, about sisterly love.
I happened to watch it with my big sis and we both got pretty weepy. But you don’t need to have a big sister to appreciate when a film gets the emotions right. I’ve Loved You So Long does just that.