Much will be written about Kristen Scott Thomas’s performance in the new French film I’ve Loved You So Long—most of it justified. The film opens with a shot of the actress smoking in an airport terminal and the camera captures her staring ahead wearily, as if she hates where she is, where she was and where she will go—all of it, we will learn, true. Thomas plays Juliette, a former convict fresh out of prison for an unspecified offense who moves in with her sister Lea (Elsa Sylberstein) and the woman’s husband and two adopted Vietnamese children. As Lea calls it, it’s “a real Benetton family.”
The film’s tension lies between the happy communities that Juliette finds back out in the world and the oppressive solitude that she still feels nonetheless. To convey this, director Philippe Claudel frequently frames Thomas tightly in one-shots, breaking the bubble to include her in shots with other characters at moments of connection. The strategy recalls Robert Bresson’s continual framing of the title character in A Gentle Woman behind doors and windows. In that film, Bresson conveyed the nameless woman as under mental house arrest; in this film, Claudel depicts Juliette as someone who has to teach herself not to stay imprisoned.
The film is a modest, subtle character study that I fear some will mistake for high art; we live in a society, after all, where Mongol is classed as an art film while still being as dumb as many Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. Though Claudel’s writing works fine in quieter scenes, he strains when he aims for deeper meaning (a scene where Lea discusses Crime and Punishment with a group of high schoolers is painfully didactic). As a director, he also has trouble pacing scenes, as in a dinner-table confrontation where someone demands to learn Juliette’s past falls flat because the film hasn’t taken time to set it up.
Yet there is still so much value in this movie, most of it due to Thomas. I was a fan back in her luminous romantic lead days, with mid-‘90s films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient, but here the 48-year-old actress goes deeper than she has ever before, letting her cheeks sag, her bright eyes fade and her lips pout. Her character’s journey is all the more moving because of this. I’ve Loved You So Long will be overrated, but because of Thomas it’s a gift nonetheless.