Judging by the wildly diverse reviews that Il y A Longtemps que Je T ’Aime (I’ve Loved You So Long) has received, it seems likely that you will either love or hate it. As I tend to complain rather frequently on the pages of Paris Update about the generally dire state of current French cinema, I am relieved to admit to being one of those who loved it.
Kristin Scott Thomas, who seems to be starring in French movies more frequently than in English ones these days, plays Juliette Fontaine, a doctor who has just come out of prison after serving 15 years for murdering her six-year-old son. (Her surname connects to the title of the film, a refrain from a traditional French song, “A la Claire Fontaine,” which is sung briefly in one scene.)
As Juliette tries to find a job and settle back into civilian life, she stays with her much younger sister, literature professor Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), Léa’s lexicographer husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) and their two adopted Vietnamese daughters in the eastern French city of Nancy.
The awkwardness and tensions provoked by Juliette’s arrival are beautifully conveyed by the actors and the director, Philippe Claudel. Juliette’s seemingly cold, uncommunicative nature contrasts with Léa’s openness, whereas Luc is understandably wary of having a convicted child murderer in his home.
Inevitably, much of the film revolves around the two sisters becoming reacquainted with each other and the gradual revelation of why Juliette killed her son, but other interesting episodes, both humorous and touching, bring out the complexity of Juliette’s new life: a one-night stand with a local Lothario, her budding friendship with one of Léa’s colleagues, and her attempts to find a job and new home.
In one particularly excruciating dinner-party scene, a family friend’s increasingly insistent questions to Juliette about her mysterious past prompts her to reveal the truth, which most of the unknowing guests take to be a hilarious riposte to the irritating questioner.
Although some of the parallel strands in the story rather too neatly evoke different kinds of imprisonment (Luc’s father, a stroke victim, is trapped in silence; Juliette and Léa’s mother is cut off from the world by senile dementia; and figures in painting and literature are referred to as different kinds of prisoners), the excellence of Scott-Thomas (this surely must be one of her greatest performances) and the confidence of Claudel’s direction make this film both moving and engaging.