Writer / director Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long is a textbook exercise in the dramatic withholding of narrative information. Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) is released from prison after serving 15 years for an unspecified crime, and is unwillingly housed with her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein). Léa is initially her only ally, and her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is distrustful for what turns out to be very good reason. Léa and Luc have adopted two children (a big clue to the central mystery of the movie), including their precocious older daughter P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur, a rare movie tyke that is actually endearing). As part of her probation, Juliette is required to sign in weekly with a lonely cop (Frédéric Pierrot) with even more psychological issues than she. The slow leak of information ramps up the drama, but we’re told just enough to see that the movie is actually about Juliette’s gradual, sometimes painful reentry into life, not her mysterious crime.
Thomas’s unshowy performance is acting of the highest degree. The British already proved her fluency in French in Tell No One, although a line of dialogue here explains away her accent. She doesn’t distract by inviting the audience to be constantly impressed at how talented she is. But that said, there were a few moments where I marveled at the complex emotions she conveyed. Two scenes in particular stand out: Juliette almost physically recoils when introduced to Léa’s colleague Michel (Laurent Grévill) and when reunited with her estranged mother. Also watch for the almost indescribably complex expression that plays across her face when she meets a sleazy bloke in a pub shortly after her release.
Only two factors kept me from considering the movie more highly. There’s a seemingly extraneous and unresolved subplot about Léa ignoring a student who appears to have a crush on her, and claims he’s a subject of prejudice. Was the point merely that Léa is an attractive, sympathetic person? Secondly, the movie arguably descends into talky melodrama at the very end; without revealing too much, we learn the truth about what motivated Juliette’s crime, and why she stubbornly kept her silence for so long.