There is a way in which film is the reverse of literature, image as opposed to word. But film and literature are, of course, also part of a continuum.
In few films is this relationship more pronounced than I’ve Loved You So Long, the new French drama written and directed by Philippe Claudel. Claudel, a young novelist of some repute in his native France, particularly for his debut work Grey Souls, is a professor of literature at the University of Lyon. I’ve Loved You So Long, his first foray into film, is a work by a reader, for readers, and one that is crammed full of characters that read heavily, and argue about literature fiercely.
The protagonist, Juliette, has had a considerable bit of free time to get some reading done. When we first meet Juliette, played by a multi-dimensionally mesmerizing Kristin Scott Thomas (the bilingual talent of Tell No One and Four Weddings and a Funeral), in the opening scene, dragging absently on a cigarette and staring vacantly into what can only be assumed is her past, she’s just been released from a 15-year prison sentence, almost enough time to get through Remembrance of Things Past. Juliette’s younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), a literature professor (like her creator), who is there to pick Juliette up, barely knows her.
When Léa arrives home with her affectless, nearly mute sister in tow, her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is none too pleased to have a felon in the guest room, reading to the couple’s two darling adopted daughters. Juliette’s crime isn’t known to the audience for some time—and it won’t be spoiled here—but suffice it to say Luc’s concerns are justified. The crime is about as unimaginable as they come.
What happens from there spreads out like a wad of pages ripped from a book, balled in one’s fist and then released—the story’s opaque contours slowly unfurl, fan out and finally flatten, revealing an intricately wrinkled study of imprisoning guilt, redemption and the delicacies of societal reintegration.
I’ve Loved You So Long has deeply resonating themes and first-rate acting that surpasses even the capaciously developed characters limned by Claudel. These characters, and the emotional spaces between them, are Claudel’s literary advantages. But there’s also a way in which, cinematically, its smartly written pages are, particularly toward the end, too neatly folded, too easily tucked away. Claudel’s first film is readerly, to be sure. But is it writerly?
I’ve Loved You So Long
Written and directed by Philippe Claudel
With Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill and Frédéric Pierrot
115 min., PG-13