In I've Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas gives a performance that is so chilling, so braced in pain that it's almost impossible to bear. Almost impossible, because, in fact, it's impossible not to behold this riveting piece of role immersion in a story that's sad, stark and redemptive.
Written and directed by French novelist Philippe Claudel, I've Loved You So Long offers the portrait of Juliette (Scott Thomas), a middle-aged woman returning to society after a long stretch in prison. Her younger estranged sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) — the two look remarkably like siblings — meets her at the airport. Lea offers her house, which she shares with her husband, her near-senile father and the couple's two adopted Vietnamese daughters, for Juliette to put her life together again.
Claudel takes his time letting us know why Juliette was in prison, but as the terrible details unfold, we can see the reasons why Juliette — hunched, wary, silent, chain- smoking — is unwilling and unable to let people in. Set in a fittingly drab French provincial city, I've Loved You So Long is in essence a melodrama, but one of exacting emotional truth. The tears, when they come, are rivers.
Scott Thomas is probably best known to audiences for the frosty, stalwart Brits she has played in big dramas (The English Patient, Gosford Park) and jaunty romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral). A Briton by birth but a longtime resident of Paris, Scott Thomas has pursued a parallel career in French cinema during the past decade. But nothing she has done, in English or French, has the heft and haunting resonance of her portrayal here.
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And although this is unquestionably her movie, Scott Thomas is accompanied by fine performances. Zylberstein, as the sister, grown up and teaching literature at a local college, brings a palpable sense of guilt and longing to the proceedings, and Laurent Grévill, as a friend and fellow professor who takes an interest in Juliette, seems to be the only soul who understands the agony she has endured. You find yourself rooting for him, hoping he can break through and grab hold of Juliette's soul.
This might be Claudel's first directing job, but he clearly understands how to draw characters, and how to draw us into their world. Full of rapt stillnesses and cool, controlled shots — all the better to capture Juliette's psychic and spiritual struggles — this is a picture of quiet observation, contained emotion, the hush before the cathartic scream.