Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long is a movie that I had on my ‘list’ at TIFF 2008, but couldn’t work it into my aggressive schedule. Just out on DVD this week, this is the best film I’ve seen this year yet. In fact, I’m giving it my coveted 5th diamond, which I haven’t done until now. It’s a French film through and through, and English actress Kristen Scott Thomas gives a thoroughly French performance. It’s an emotionally draining movie, but a truly rewarding one.
The film opens with the camera fascinated by the face of Scott Thomas’ Juliette. As well it might. Washed out. Weary. Tired, yet with a noble Galllic nose. She’s smoking one of her many cigarettes. At first we’re not sure where she is, but come to see it’s an airport waiting room. Why is she there alone? Then a woman running. Ah. She’s waiting for this woman to pick her up. Who’s the woman running? We find out shortly it’s her sister. And so the characters and the story reveal themselves to us in this way throughout. At a leisurely pace, but constantly unfolding. Claudel (who directed and wrote the screenplay) has written, filmed and cut this very fine film flawlessly. His technique, totally works in this film. You’ll see many films that do not know how to do this at all: reveal their characters to us – with intelligence and with a lack of condescension. Hell, you’ll read many novels that cannot do this. l
The story itself turns out to be the tale of two sisters Juliette and Lea) reuniting after 15 years apart. Fifteen years that which Juliette has spent in prison after having been convicted of an horrific crime. Juliette is to live with her sister. Revealed at the proper pace, of course. I said the film is emotionally draining of course. But it’s redemptive as well.
This is Claudel’s directing debut, although he’s a well known author in France. It shows. This is a book lovers movie for one thing. Bookcases line the walls. Having suffered a stroke that leaves him without speech, Lea’s father in law spends all his time surrounded by his books. Lea is a professor of literature, as is a colleague who takes an interest in Juliette.
There’s a stunning scene in which one of Lea’s adopted daughters is reading out loud a children’s fantasy book in a whisper. The phone rings. Lea listens while on the other end of the line the true story of Juliette’s tragedy is revealed to her. We hear none of the conversation (although we know essentially what s being said). All we see is Lea’s emotions playing across her face, with very little verbal reaction. Only her daughter continuing to read, in her whispering voice. The scene is a masterpiece:
“Will I be in time? the Prince wondered. He remembered what the magician had told him. The night is your only enemy. Once it has cast its cloak of darkness over the world, and you can’t tell the shadow of a dog from that of a wolf, you will know it is too late, and that your beautiful lady is lost forever. Hurry if you love her.
The DVD deleted scenes reveal the origin scene shot is a one-way phone call as well. But the rest of the context is different and completely at odds with the scene’s intent. The included scene was completely rewritten. What a great edit. The several deleted scenes were all well edited out as well. I’d have one exception, though Claudel’s reasoning was valid, in that it was redundant. Yet, sure…there are plenty of other similar scenes: shots of Juliette’s emotional – or sometimes emotion masking – face. Claudel notes how Hopperesque it is. And it is just that, and lighted in that special way. A fine tracking shot on Juliette’s face (not cigarette this time). It’s lovely.
As is the whole movie. A remarkable effort.