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At the beginning of Philippe Claudel's debut feature, Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long), we meet two sisters, Juliette and Léa. It is immediately established that they have not seen one another in some time. Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) appears to lead a life of normal contentment; her affairs are sufficiently well-arranged for her to put herself out for Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas), who certainly seems to have been in some sort of trouble. Hell, perhaps. In the course of the film, we learn a great deal more about Juliette, as do the people among whom Léa's benevolence has placed her. With every revelation, Juliette takes a small step back to life; and the film is, fundamentally, an illustration of what this idiom, "back to life," actually means. Juliette has not died, and — surprising as this might seem in the early part of the movie — she does not appear to contemplate suicide. How can she come back to life if she has not left or lost it? And how can she have been to hell?
What "life" means here is ordinary life. Bourgeois life, in Juliette's case. The life of family, friends, careers, homes, and vacations. And health. Juliette turns out to have been dealt a very bad hand in terms of the health card. She herself is well enough. But terrible illness has struck her family, and, worse, she has been in a position, as a doctor, to understand the fatality of the blow. Having lost everything in one sense, she has lost everything in all the others, and been sentenced to fifteen years in prison — an incarceration from which, at the beginning of the film, she has just emerged.
What happened? The facts emerge gradually, as they so often do in clever films. But this is not a clever film. Mr Claudel does not keep us guessing for the hell of it. He gives us information only when Juliette herself is prepared, not so much to admit it to herself, as to share it with her sister — who was a teenager when she went to jail — and her new friends. At first, it's true, this sharing is forced upon her. A prospective employer demands to know why she served so long a sentence. When he finds out what she did, he throws her out of his office in disgust. But Il y a longtemps que je t'aime is not what it might at first appear to be: the story of society's unwillingness to forgive and forget an apparently unspeakable crime. Mr Claudel plays with this possibility, for a good reason: the feeling that Juliette might have to endure a second punishment, out in the world after having been in prison, naturally draws the audience into sympathy with her. The film invites us to consider what it is like to be Juliette. And, the more we see, the clearer it becomes that she is not waiting for the world to forgive her. She is waiting for the world to seduce her into forgiving herself. She is waiting to want to come back to life.
Paradoxically, this narrative trajectory in the direction of happiness and engagement actually makes the film progressively more painful to watch. At the start, Juliette is not particularly attractive. She is worn out and bottled up. Mr Claudel's ability to place the audience in the position of the good people of Nancy among whom Juliette reluctantly circulates is arguably his most impressive contribution to Il y a longtemps que je t'aime. If Juliette doesn't care about the other people in the film, then we won't care about her: it's that simple. If we especially want her to come to some sort of terms with Léa, that's because Ms Zylberstein makes Juliette's sister as interesting as Juliette herself.
Léa's sins, which we learn about up front, are the "innocent" bourgeois ones of going along to get along. Over time, she acquiesced to her parents' absolute rejection of Juliette. When she found out that her letters to Juliette were being held up by her father, she stopped writing them. Except at the very end, she did not visit Juliette in prison. She went about her life, marrying a nice guy, adopting two Vietnamese baby girls, pursuing her scholarly career — and passing herself off, as instructed, as an only child. Juliette is bitter about this, the sin of Peter. Wanting badly to atone, Léa insists that Juliette begin her return to the civilian world as a guest in her home — over her husband's objections. It's pretty clear that Léa wants Juliette to be grateful, but she is smart enough to know that this might be too much to ask. Initial attempts to "help" are rebuffed, for what ails Juliette at the start can't be helped by anyone. But the film doesn't hunker down to a series of sororal spats. Mr Claudel takes his film in the opposite direction, in terms not only of narrative but — paramount in film — of scene.
Long before anything like real sunshine breaks into Juliette's life, she and Léa take their exercise in the warmth of what I will have to call a public swimming bath. This circular piscine, clearly a venerable establishment in Nancy, is the film's most powerful visual image, if largely for what it is not: it is not pool designed for competitive swimming. The sisters paddle about, chatting (Léa mostly, of course) and holding on to a brass rail for the occasional rest. They are clothed, and men are on hand, but Mr Claudel contrives to endow the pool scenes with the intimacy of a harem. Here, it seems, Juliette and Léa can be sisters, because they can be equals: two women in the water. Back at home, Léa is the wife with two children, and Juliette is the woman with nothing.
Having nothing naturally makes Juliette attractive to men. There is the guy in a bar whom she consents to sleep with — her first man in years — only to tell him afterward that the experience left a lot to be desired. (This is not a movie devoid of funny scenes!) There is the probation officer who dreams of sailing on the Orinoco, and whose interest in Juliette quickly takes an unprofessional turn that bothers us long before Juliette wakes up to it. (She does have problems of her own!) And then there is Michel, the colleague of Léa who falls for Juliette at first sight but who still manages to put his foot in it, telling her about his favorite painting at the museum, and how happy he is that the girl of his dreams is stuck in a frame. When Juliette puts an end to an excruciating scene — a drunk party guest taunts her about her mysterious past — by telling everyone where she has been and why, Michel is quick to realize that she is telling the truth. (Everyone else laughs at her hilarious bluff!) But as engaging as these masculine contacts are, it is Juliette's connection with Léa that must most urgently be put to rights. Léa may not be exceptionally clever at managing Juliette (who could be?), but Ms Zylberstein is nothing short of amazing at keeping the "innocent" little sister vibrantly interesting, and not just a bundle of animated needs and obligations.
My immediate impression is that Il y a longtemps que je t'aime is a very great motion picture, destined for canonical status, a film that everyone who cares about the movies will simply have to see. But my record as a prognosticator is spotty at best, and my enthusiasm is prejudicial. What I can say is this: I always cry at the movies — just as I always laugh — but I am usually somewhat ashamed of the tears. Watching Juliette come back to life, however, I let them fall big and brazen. I won't understand Il y a longtemps que je t'aime any better until I see it again. (October 2008)
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