Wednesday, February 11

Review: I've loved you so long (2008)

The unbearable lightness of being lonely.

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime

Written and Directed by Philippe Claudel
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Frederic Pierrot

A woman in her forties sits alone almost motionless. She smokes as if it were an afterthought, her eyes are anxious as if scanning the windows for escape. The stillness of everything else, an empty room, her sallow cheeks, makes it appear that the woman was painted in, framed by a vacancy of colors. Another woman rushes in, younger, and awkwardly reaches out to the seated woman. There is recognition but no acceptance.

Philippe Claudel tells a story in vignettes where days dissolve into the next and the lonely drift disconnected to any purpose. From the clipped conversations and embarrassing silences, we slowly piece the story together. The older woman, Juliette Fontaine (Thomas) has been in prison for 15 years and is staying with her sister, Léa (Zylberstein), until she finds a job. Lea's husband is wary of Juliette for a reason, she is sinewy in her silence and cold in her manner of speech. But there is also a vast loneliness in her eyes when she wanders around the city.

Juliette finds her comfort in her weekly visits to her parole officer, Capitaine Fauré (Pierrot) who is obsessed with the Orinoco River. On their first meeting, he warns her of the difficulty of loneliness. Later on, when their meetings have taken a subtly romantic turn, he tells Juliette that no one has really determined the source of the Orinico River, "All that water and no one knows where it comes from." And just like that, he drifts farther without a lifeline.

"Il y a longtemps que je t'aime" is rich in teasing reveals that steadily propels the story forward but it is also a delicate study of imprisonment and the attempts to escape---some silently suffering, some desperately seeking---from one's dark past, from ideals and worlds molded by literature, from unexpected affection that one feels undeserved. Being typically French, the palpable distance of sympathies and atmosphere make the psychological unraveling of Juliette more threatening at the start, and criminally tragic in the end.

A very French Kristin Scott Thomas, in what could be last year's best performance (overlooked by the Oscars), is darkly magnetic, a paradox of coldly-chiseled shoulders and a monstrous yearning for redemption. Elsa Zylberstein plays with extraordinary instinct the shy adoration of a younger sister and the negligible gestures that naturally show that very distinct connection between siblings.

The inevitable face-off at the end feels a little too contrived and hurried, but that last bit with the sisters staring out of the window watching a rain-drenched, refracted world is ultimately one of the most uplifting moments in cinema.

In "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime," love is both prison and escape, damnation and salvation. It is up to us to choose which it will be in our brittle lives.

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