“Did you think I was asleep all this time until the good fairy Lea woke me up?”
I’m a sucker for Kristin Scott Thomas in French films, so when I saw that she had a main role in I’ve Loved You Long (Il y a Longtemps Que Je T’Aime) from director Philippe Claudel, well I couldn’t resist.
The film begins with the release from prison of Juliette Fontaine (Kristin Scott Thomas) to her estranged sister Lea’s (Elsa Zylberstein) home. Seems that Juliette has just finished a 15-year prison sentence and she’s now out on parole. Lea is married to Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) and they have two adopted children. While Lea tries hard in her relationship with Juliette, she’s not always successful. Juliette is emotionally distant and self-contained. But if you scratch Juliette’s prickly surface, she’s very resentful that none of her family came to visit her during her 15-year prison stay. Meanwhile Luc is clearly uncomfortable around Juliette, and he’s particularly nervous about leaving her around the children. And he may have cause to be nervous as at one point Juliette snaps at one of the girls. In this tense domestic situation, everyone is ill at ease, and even the most superficial social interactions are fraught with underlying complications. After all, as a character in the film notes, you don’t go to prison for 15 years unless you’ve done something bad….
And just what Juliette did to warrant a fifteen sentence is the meat of the film. The past is slowly teased out by gradual revelations and by Juliette’s tentative relationships with a number of people as she tries to integrate into society. There’s lonely probation officer Faure (Frederic Pierrot) and Michel (Laurent Grevill) a colleague of Lea’s who’s intrigued with the mysterious Juliette. There’s one marvelous scene when Michel and Juliette visit a museum together and discuss a painting in which the subject is “imprisoned in her frame.” Juliette is similarly imprisoned–for fifteen years in a prison cell, but even now she’s released she’s still imprisoned in the images people have of her.
This is a wonderfully, well-crafted film in which layers of plot delicately peel away, but the conclusion was terribly disappointing. One of the very best scenes in the film takes place between Juliette and her social worker, and the social worker tries to question Juliette about what happened to get her sent to prison in the first place. Juliette reacts with hostility, drawing a line between herself, her privacy, her conscience and the social worker. Is the social worker just being nosy? Does she really care? Or does she just want to solve the mystery of Juliette? This was a perfect scene; whatever Juliette did is a matter for her conscience and not something she feels the need to ‘share’ with anyone else. She remains a cipher, but the film has to blow this perfect enigma by sewing up the plot with a preposterous scenario in which a single clue allows Lea to solve the mystery. And thus Juliette is redeemed and utterly understandable once again–even though some elements of exactly what Juliette did don’t make an ounce of sense.
Some people do things that we never understand. And the film seems very comfortable with that idea. Take Faure for example. There’s really no explanation for what he does. We have to accept it or not and we fill in the blanks in an attempt perhaps to try to find an answer we are comfortable with, but there will not be any final confirmation about whatever we think. It’s still all speculation. Given that, the film still has to redeem Juliette for us, solving the question of what she did and exactly why she did it. And in that latter need to salvage Juliette for us, the film really failed to meet its early promise. A sublime film morphed into a cliché.
That said, Kristin Scott Thomas is marvelous here. When the film begins, she looks tried, faded and worn out. As the film continues she regains some interest in life and this is reflected in her face. An incredible performance from a wonderful actress, and let’s hope she sticks with French films. If you haven’t seen her in the French thriller Tell No One (Ne Le Dis a Personne), I recommend it highly.