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It’s always a pleasure reading Golden Globe nominations and discovering films that you never heard of. Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long) was this year’s entry into that category for me. With a best foreign language and best actress nod I couldn’t resist checking it out, even without knowing a thing about it. Deciding to go in blind, no trailer, no synopsis, nothing, I was able to experience the story as first-time director Philippe Claudel wanted me to. Where is Juliette coming from? Why has she been estranged from her sister for so many years? Why is she so withdrawn and cold to the outside world? These questions and more will be answered and explained during the course of the film, a work that will keep you on your toes emotionally, wondering what really happened to Juliette and whether she’ll be able to overcome it.

From the start, you know that there has to be some kind of huge revelation at the end; everything builds towards that outcome. I’m not saying that the film is slight or contains a simple storyline, but rather it is a very well constructed narrative building tension until its inevitable release. That discovery could either be tragic or redemptive and the push and pull stays with you as you wait for it, unknowing which option will win out. Here is a woman who has spent the past fifteen years in prison for killing her son and now she is in her sister’s house with two young children. That sibling, Léa, believes Juliette to be fine and wanting to be part of civilization again, but her husband Luc has other ideas, mainly a fear to leave his kids alone with her. Juliette is a total wildcard—so ambivalent and even at times mean—that you wouldn’t be surprised if she made his worst nightmare come true.

And that is pretty much the story at hand. Can this woman, back from prison, live her life again? No one knows what really happened those fifteen years ago, she is tightlipped right from the psychological review taken at her trial to now and everyone else is too afraid to ask. The guilt of what she has done is eating away at her, and truth be told, Kristen Scott Thomas portrays it to perfection. Her eyes are sad throughout, even when those few instances of a smile creep onto her face. The tragedy weighs heavy on her heart and the secret everyone is keeping just exacerbates it even more. Told she has been traveling to the children and that she was living in the south to her sister’s colleagues, no one knows why this woman was hidden from them all. It is a tense moment at a dinner party when the secret finally appears as though it will be spilled. The reaction from all, juxtaposed with Juliette’s, Léa’s, Luc’s, and a friend Marcel’s faces, just shows how preconceptions can rule anyone’s thought process. Looking back now, I have to say that Thomas is most deserving of any awards being strewn about for actresses this season. With my surprise front-runner being Anne Hathaway previously, I’ll just say that Thomas, someone else I’ve never really held a high affinity for, has leapfrogged into the lead.

It’s tough to say much more about the story then what has already been spoken, as I do not want to ruin the ending. Everything that happens—every relationship, misguided fear, surprise sign of love, and rough moments only bringing to light tragic memories—builds to the final scene, that final confrontation between sisters, once and for all opening their eyes to the bond between them and the events that transpired to tear them apart. Instead, I can only give more acclaim to the rest of this French-speaking cast. My favorite supporting player is Laurent Grévill’s Marcel, an older teacher friend of Léa’s that becomes smitten with Juliette. He is a secretive man himself with a past that he hides from those around him and proves to be the perfect person to help her break free of her past, to realize that she is “still here”. Mention needs to also be made for Elsa Zylberstein and Serge Hazanavicius as Léa and Luc. Hazanavicius is nice as the husband still unsure about having a murderer living in the house with his children who slowly finds his heart thaw as he witnesses the joy those young ones receive from her. Zylberstein shines in multiple instances, as she herself must reconcile her feelings of rediscovering this woman who has been out of her life for so long. Told by her parents to forget her sister ever existed, Léa never gave up hope or erased this person that was such a huge part of her life. When she must explain the process she went through to settle on an occupation to pursue in school, or why she adopted her children, the emotion and realism comes out strong. I think her most memorable scene involves a debate with students about Dostoyevsky and whether a masterpiece of literature can truly be the end-all be-all on a subject such as murder. Here is a woman that has a murderer as close to her as one can, and to be able to speak of that fact in literary terms despite her own personal experiences is impossible.

I’ve Loved You So Long is a film that digs in and doesn’t let go until the final frame. Tough subject matter and events that go into some pretty dark places may turn some people off, but it is all handled so perfectly that its overall strength hinges on those moments. Powerful throughout, Thomas embodies this broken creature attempting to mend her wings to continue on with her life. She may never be able to be the successfully married doctor and mother she was, but if she can get back to a place where her guilt and self-loathing disappears, she has a chance to live happily with a family she didn’t know would still be there after everything that had happened.

Il y a longtemps que je t’aime 9/10

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photography:
[1] Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette. Photo by Thierry Valletoux, © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Left to Right: Elsa Zylberstein as Lea, Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette. Photo taken by Thierry Valletoux, © 2007, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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