They say that losing a child is the greatest misfortune to befall anyone — at the beginning of “Il ya longtemps que je t’aime” that misfortune is already the defining element of Juliette’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) life. The camera zooms in on her profile, the skin dry and wan, inhaling a cigarette. Juliette is just out of prison, having served 15 years for murdering her 6-year-old son. She waits in an airport cafe to get picked up by her much younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who has invited Juliette to spend the first few weeks of readjustment in her home in Nancy. Juliette’s face is a complete blank; she’s emotionless over seeing Lea again, indifferent to the Lorraine countryside, politely uninterested in Lea’s husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), or their two adopted children from Vietnam.
“Il y a longtemps” (international title: “I’ve Loved You So Long”) is the astounding debut feature by French novelist Philippe Claudel — though, as we don’t know whether he intends to continue filmmaking, “debut” is perhaps the wrong term. In any case, Claudel literally sneaked up on the French viewing public — his long and successful writing career had French literary critics comparing his work with Haruki Murakami, but they hadn’t been prepared for a screen adaptation of his one of his own works.
“Il y a longtemps” was made on a miniscule budget in Claudel’s hometown in Nancy and everything about the production speaks of practical restraint and dislike of fanfare. But in a stroke of inspired brilliance Claudel brought in Kristin Scott Thomas, an actress who usually adorns a movie like a select and stylish ornament. In this, she appears with no makeup and no pretensions — drowning the glitter of her persona in a deep wellspring of despair. As a result “Il y a longtemps” has the matured, seasoned sheen atypical of first-time indie works and Claudel sports the confidence of a veteran filmmaker with a cache of award-winners stashed in his belt.
Having said that, the director’s literary roots show in the staid shots and less-than-adventurous camera work — Claudel seems content to tell the story and let the cast wander in and out of scenes, with the ease (if not the happiness) of people inhabiting their own house. Juliette is silent and repressed, but for a woman with 15 years of incarceration behind her, she seems remarkably unbruised. Lea on the other hand, doesn’t bother to hide her gaping wounds — her marriage, her decision to take in an estranged sister, her adoptive daughters have all created problems she’s ill-equipped to deal with. Claudel observes the sisters interacting with each other: tentatively, shyly at first (they have a lot of catching up to do but neither seems eager to talk much of the past) and then with growing familiarity. It’s lovely to see Juliette with Lea’s children and how the relationship shifts from suspicious strangers to restrained but genuine friends. The same thing happens with Lea’s father-in-law (Jean-Claude Arnaud), mute from a stroke and confined to a first-floor study surrounded by books. Juliette makes no attempt to help but she does sit with him in morose companionship and the older man seems to understand her pain without explanation.
“Il y a longtemps” is compelling because the characters seem less cinematic than real people, not plagued by a need to charm or convince an audience. The sisters are wonderful to watch because they make no demands — one recurring scene is of the two of them in an indoor swimming pool, resting with legs outstretched in the water, both clad in dark, functional one-piece bathing suits. On one occasion a statuesque, bikini-ed beauty comes striding in and the woman’s appearance is like a garish blemish on an otherwise somber landscape. It’s the only time really, that the movie makes an abrupt shift from its somnolent, semidocumentary state to something theatrical. Both sisters get a fleeting look of anguish as if they’d just been slapped — the blonde perhaps, signifies all that they have missed in life. It’s vulnerable moments like this that the film cherishes and lingers on, and viewers will also find hard to forget.