French writer Claudel paints a not-too-pretty picture


Philippe Claudel is one of France’s best known novelists who also defines himself as a teacher.

“Words have the same importance to me as imparting and instructing — it would feel wrong to me somehow, if I just wrote and did nothing else.”

The self-made “man of words, thought and action” as he’s often described in the French media, teaches anthropology and literature at his old university in Nancy, as well as in schools for physically disabled children.

He has also taught creative writing in a prison for 11 years and of that, says: “It taught me to look at crime and prisoners in an entirely different light. The experience has been invaluable.”

Some of that experience is reflected in his film “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime” (“I’ve Loved You So Long”), which is about a woman who murdered her young son and was put behind bars for 15 years.

“Images linked to words is a concept that has always fascinated me,” Claudel explains, and he has also taken up painting to explore the possibilities.

“It all fuses together in my body of work,” says Claudel, adding that for him there’s often little distinction from work and his personal life. It was natural for him to cast his own adopted, Vietnamese daughter in a key role. “My wife and I both wished to have a Vietnamese child, someone outside our realm of existence. And in the film, Juliette’s sister, Lea, has the same desire.”

“Il y a” was adapted from an original screenplay, and Claudel penned the story with the idea of standing behind the camera. “It began with an idea — the idea of two sisters who hadn’t seen each other in a long time. They were both pensive, professional women, balancing careers and families. What kept them apart? When they meet, what do they talk about? These questions fascinated me, not only because I’m a writer but also because, as a man, I’m utterly bowled over by women.”

Casting Kristin Scott Thomas in the role of Juliette — newly released from prison and a reluctant guest in the home of her sister — was a decision he had made from the very start of the project.

“I hesitated about asking a great, internationally known actress like Kristin to appear without makeup, wearing a baggy coat,” professes Claudel. “But I knew what I wanted, and she very kindly consented to everything, even chain-smoking. She herself is a militant nonsmoker but as Juliette, I asked her to keep smoking the vilest, tar-infested cigarettes on the market. And she did, and she inhaled like a pro, too. For that I am deeply grateful, and it confirms my belief that women are more likely to make personal sacrifices without fuss, than men. No wonder I admire women so much.”

Claudel says he understands Juliette better than Lea, who remains somewhat of an enigma to him.

“I see her as a woman who has willfully stopped herself from maturing. For all her professional status and accomplishments, Lea wants to stay a young girl.”

He drew her as an inwardly tortured woman, who yearned for children but chose to adopt them rather than give birth. “I thought about Lea for along time. . . . For a woman to make that kind of choice must be devastating. It used to be that when I closed my eyes I would see Lea’s distress and sadness.”

And Juliette, how does Claudel see her?

“A century ago she would have entered a convent and taken an oath of silence. That was how many people dealt with insoluble problems or inconsolable grief. But in this day and age, she chose to commit a crime and go to prison, and that was how she withdrew from the world. Her inner strength is incredible. I understand that, but I can’t hope to emulate it.”