No one in Léa’s circle of acquaintances is even aware that she has a sister until Juliette Fontaine (Thomas) suddenly moves in with Léa (Zylberstein), her husband Luc (Hazanavicius), their two little daughters, and Luc’s frail old father. They inhabit a cozy house in Nancy, northeastern France, where Léa is a literature professor and Luc, a lexicographer. About halfway through I’ve Loved You So Long, Juliette tags along with Léa and Luc to a gathering of their friends. Throughout the evening’s merry banter, Juliette remains taciturn. Fortified by a surfeit of wine, someone begins interrogating the newcomer. Who exactly is this Juliette? Where has she been? Why have they never met her before? At first, Juliette maintains a polite silence. But when her inquisitor persists, she replies: “I was in prison for 15 years, for murder.”
The idea seems so preposterous to the bright young professionals sitting around the dinner table that they erupt into hearty laughter. If you pitched it to a Hollywood producer, the response might be the same. But, directing his first feature film, novelist Philippe Claudel makes it the premise for an affecting study of estrangement and reconnection. I’ve Loved You So Long is the story of a convict’s rehabilitation, but it is a vehicle not so much for reflections on France’s criminal-justice system as for a remarkable performance by Kristin Scott Thomas, who proves fluent not only in French but also in the subtleties of gesture, movement, and expression. From the opening sequence, in which Juliette, her ashen skin, like her spirits, sagging, sits alone in an airport lounge, fuming, Thomas occupies the shell of a woman who has expelled herself from the human community. Ejected into the world again, she, who once was a physician, takes work as a hospital clerk. By the time of her final words, “Je suis là” – Here I am — Juliette has begun reentry.
The film is stingy with its secrets, so that for a long time the viewer remains as puzzled as Luc about what sent his sister-in-law to prison and what drove his wife to bring her to their home, as a boarder on an indeterminate lease. Léa was a teenager when Juliette, disowned by their distraught parents, disappeared into the penitentiary, but, despite the lack of any contact, she never stopped thinking about her beloved older sister. Paroled from prison, Juliette is as much a mystery to Léa as she is to us.
The society that Juliette — swerving between disaffection and affection — rejoins is populated by motley strangers. With two adopted Vietnamese children and an Eastern European father-in-law debilitated by stroke, Léa describes her ménage as “a real Benetton family.” Two of her best friends are Iraqis. Juliette’s parole officer is a lonely soul who longs to visit the Orinoco. One of Léa’s friends, a professor who has taught in prisons, knows how little separates inmates from the rest of us: “It’s such a fine line sometimes.” I’ve Loved You So Long walks that line, finely. •