Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long)
Written and directed by Phillipe Caludel

The debut film from Phillipe Claudel, from his own screenplay, is a character study - a small portrait - of a woman taken to the extremes of human experience and the difficult path she must walk to rejoin society. It is an intimate film that observes family dynamics, personal psychology and social structures to tell the story of one woman's dilemma, her decision and it's consequences, and in doing so it tests our own conclusions and assumptions about the limits of forgiveness, love and trust, for others, and for ourselves.

Like a lot of European cinema, the film is not seeking "blockbuster" status, and so is content to move slowly, to watch carefully, to leave any "conclusions" that may be drawn to the intelligence and sensitivity of the audience. It's sadly rare that American films give their audience that kind of credit, or are willing to be satisfied with "doing" so little. Like a portrait by Gauguin or Van Gogh, the film is presented as the result of an artistic interaction between the artist (or in the case of the film, the artists) and the subject, for the viewer to evaluate, appreciate and draw from as he or she is so moved.

It's refreshing to be treated in that way, and one comes away feeling additionally oppressed by the pandering, desperate and often manipulative tone so many films project. Those inured to the MTV inspired editing rhythms of most American (and many European and Asian) films and the constant narrative hyperbole may at first find the scale of of I've Loved You So Long constricting and claustrophobic. But a surrender to the languid cadence and simple (but profound) questions on which the plot turns yields an unusually satisfying experience.

The film is the story of Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) , who has just been released from prison after serving fifteen years for murder - a particularly incomprehensible murder Rejected, disowned and even blotted out of their lives by her parents, her ties to her family have been kept alive by her younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), who idolized her as a child.

After the death of their father, Léa has visited Juliette in prison, and offered her a temporary home on her release. Juliette arrives in Nancy, where Léa lives, a displaced person. She is dislocated in time by the isolation of prison, where she missed the unrolling of more than fifteen-years-worth of events. She is dislocated in place, in a strange city away from her formerly familiar surroundings. And most importantly, she is displaced from her own identity, having been wrenched out of it first in her incomprehensible act, and then in her years of adapting to the "prison persona" she developed to survive her incarceration.

Léa is clearly convinced that the sister she loved and admired still exists. She is baffled by Juliette's action and frustrated by her self-containment, but willing to try to meet her with love. Léa and Juliette gently and slowly feel their way around one another, trying to uncover vestiges of their past relationship and the people they were to each other then, and build a new, ongoing relationship based on who they have become.

The process proceeds through a series of interactions, from Juliette's first tentative contacts with Léa's family and her children - which are fraught with a tense mutual uncertainty - through her growing independence and self-assertion. The episodes - even including Juliette's reunion with her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother - are understated rather than milked for their emotional impact. It's is a slow and stately emotional dance. There is much to be read and discovered in the nuances of gesture, look and body language the two sisters present.

Claudel doesn't rush things and gives his characters lots of room to explore their feelings, and lots of time for the audience to observe this unfolding process. His approach to the film applies the idea that it's not "arrival" at a "destination" but rather the steps of the journey itself that are the proper study of the story-teller's art.

As a screenwriter (which was his original entrée into filmmaking) Claudel has served his directorial work well. Dialogue is restrained and halting. Silences are recognized for their communicative power, especially in circumstances where there is such uncertainty and tentativeness. Claudel uses them to underline the distances the characters need to travel and to "backlight" the gestures and communications they employ to try to bridge that gap. His ability to capture the affectionate and comfortable banter between the members of Léa's household, for instance, contrasts with Juliette's silences, punctuated by a few stilted utterances, to give a measure of how far outside the "family circle" she has traveled.

He doesn't undermine the austerity of his story with literary flourishes or verbal pyrotechnics - and he doesn't need to. The circumstances of his characters are compelling enough, without artificial embellishment. Claudel's script leaves plenty for the imagination of the audience to fill in, which when effectively done, leads to a higher level of engagement and identification.

His eventual explanation of the events - very late in the film - is the one element that seems a little strained. It puts the whole complex set of ethical and emotional problems Claudel has raised at risk, as they become seemingly moot in the light of this "resolution." But with a small additional boost of "willing suspension of disbelief" he manages to weather this problem and the film concludes on an upbeat but far from "happily-ever-after" note.

His casting decisions as Director have also contributed substantially to the film‘s success. Casting Kristin Scott Thomas as a Frenchwoman (there's a line about her mother having been English to explain her accented but fluent French) must have been a difficult choice, given the number of excellent French actresses available, Gallic national pride, and the long-standing rivalry between the French and British film industries, but it was a good decison.

Scott Thomas rises to the challenge, and gives what must be a career-best performance - and this in a career that has included some demanding and inspiring work. Silent or laconic through most of the first thee-quarters of the film, Scott Thomas relies on the subtleties of the actors' craft to put the character across. She shows particular mastery of film acting, where less - as magnified by the extreme close-up and the long take - is often more. She uses the character's opacity and passivity to set up small moments of connectedness and longing that, against that barren background, take on a special intensity.

Elsa Zylberstein brings her sister Léa to life with a generous mixture of good-heartedness and caution. Well-aware that her memories of her sister are a far cry from present reality, Zylberstein gives Léa an optimistic outlook, but allows some of her underlying self-doubt and reservation to show through. The unresolved tensions between the sisters - which remain unresolved on some level, as tensions between siblings always do - are an important part of the energetic dynamic here. Zylberstein works well with Scott Thomas, and the two make the relationship convincing.

The rest of the ensemble also work well. There are no weak links, and Claudel gets reasonably naturalistic performance even out of his two child-actors. Serge Hazanavicius, as Léa's husband Luc, and Jean -Claude Arnaud as Luc's stroke-silenced father Papy Paul stand out as characters who provide dimension and texture to the relationships between the sisters.

The camera-work is admirable. From the school of Bergmanesque minimalism, with little fancy foot work and a heavy reliance on giving the audience time to look around the image, examine the entire frame and everything contained in it, and a very straightforward presentation, cinematographer Jérôme Alméras strikes just he right, matter-of-fact tone for such a reflective and exploratory film.

I've Loved You So Long is a well-written, very well-acted and well-made film that addresses important issues of relationship and identity with a low-key intensity that is moving and thought provoking. The filmmakers provide an experience that treats its subject and characters - as well as its audience - with intelligence and respect. That in itself makes it a departure from mainstream cinema well-worth watching.

That's my take on it. What's yours?