Monday, April 20, 2009

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved you So Long)

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Forgiveness happens in increments - a few strands at a time are worn away through the process of feeling and acknowledging until, as author Wendy Strgar put it, "you can see that the injury holding you has less to offer you than the freedom of carrying your brokenness tenderly on and away". The process also happens slowly for Juliette, an ex-doctor who has just been released from prison after serving a fifteen-year sentence for a heinous crime in I've Loved You So Long, recipient of two Golden Globe Nominations. It is an emotionally powerful drama, beautifully written and directed by novelist Philippe Claudel and containing superb, highly nuanced performances by both Kristin Scott-Thomas as Juliette and Elsa Zylberstein as her sister Lea.

The film is a multi-leveled story that is about estrangement and reconciliation among siblings, a family dealing with dark secrets, resistance from narrow minded members of the community, and self-acceptance and forgiveness. Unaware of the circumstances surrounding her crime, Juliette is taken in by her sister, Lea (Zylberstein), a married literature professor whom she hasn't seen in many years, her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), his father Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who spends most of his time reading since a stroke deprived him of his ability to speak, and two adopted Vietnamese daughters (Lise Segur and Liliy-Rose).

The road to redemption, however, is difficult and is not made easier by Juliette's aloofness, periods of silence, and unwillingness to talk about her crime. Although Lea rarely visited Juliette in prison, she now offers her unconditional love but acceptance by her husband and other members of the community are less forthcoming. Lea's eight-year-old daughter Lys (Segur) asks where Juliette has been all her life and is told that she's been away in England. Luc does not trust his wife's sister at first, and is fearful of having her baby sit the kids. A guest at a dinner party threatens to expose Juliette's crime by baiting her about her silence.

Like an extended novel, Claudel takes his time in revealing key points in the plot which keeps the tension high and we do not discover the circumstances behind Juliette's incarceration until late in the film. Juliette has found support, however, from Michel (Laurent Grevill), a colleague of Lea at the university and her probation officer, Capitaine Faure (Frederic Pierrot). The camera follows Juliette as she tries to reintegrate into society, her face often revealing a coldness that hides her humanity as she applies for jobs, makes a connection with a fellow lonesome traveler at a bar, teaches P'tit Lys to play "A La Claire Fontaine" on the piano, and reaches out to Michel. As Juliette begins to come out of her shell, she reconciles with her mother (Claire Johnston), stricken with Alzheimer's and allows those close to her to begin feeling trust.

Surrounded by love and understanding, Juliette makes baby steps toward becoming whole again, climaxing in a cathartic scene with Lea that breaks through her emotional armor and heads warily toward an unknown emotional future. Far from being simplistic, I've Loved You So Long has enough complexity to allow for different interpretations. Though some of the plot points strain credulity and a scene in which Lea shouts at her class about how little Dostoevsky understood about murder is strained, I've Loved You So Long should be judged on other levels. It is not about plot but about character - about a human being discovering her capacity to grow, to open up to others and give them the chance to help her. It is about the continuing struggle for connection, to live in each moment and to allow our full capacity to give and receive love to blossom. On this level, I've Loved You So Long more than succeeds.

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