We’re down with colds at my house, and since I didn’t want to “share the wealth” by coughing all over my fellow moviegoers in a cramped theater, I decided to dip into the treasure trove backlogged on my DVR. Out popped “I’ve Loved You So Long,” a French-language film released in 2008 starring the British actress Kristin Scott Thomas in a role that’s fairly typical for her.
She plays Juliette, the much older sister of Lea, a literature professor in the French city of Nancy. As the story unfolds, Juliette reveals that she has been in prison for fifteen years for the heinous crime of murdering her young son. Her parents have brainwashed Lea into believing that Juliette is gone forever, until she discovers her sister’s true whereabouts and visits her.
Upon her release, Juliette goes to live with Lea, while she finds a job. She doesn’t confess the heartbreaking circumstances of the murder, reminiscent of classics like “Sophie’s Choice,” to Lea until the final credits are nearly ready to roll.
Juliette is skeletal, icy, and withdrawn, as are many of the characters Thomas plays, and Lea’s husband Luc is understandably terrified to leave their own two adoptive daughters under her care. In this way, “I’ve Loved You So Long” verges on the horror genre.
But it’s not about a sadistic killer. It’s a study of how one woman finds her way after committing a crime so unspeakable that, when one potential employer presses her to tell him why she was imprisoned and she complies, he kicks her out of his office. At that moment, Juliette looks like she’s watching her own life up on the screen.
Two scenes late in the film show perfectly how far Juliette has come. In the first, she and Lea are swimming at a local recreation center. Juliette’s temper flares, as it has done several times before for no apparent reason. She accuses her younger sister of carelessly abandoning her. Immediately afterwards, the camera focuses on an old box in Lea’s bedroom. Inside are her diaries containing her sister’s name and a running total of the number of days since she disappeared. Juliette is dead wrong about Lea, as the title makes startlingly clear.
The second scene occurs at the very end. Juliette has told her devastating story to Lea, as the two of them sit together in an upstairs bedroom. Downstairs, Michel, a family friend and potential love interest for Juliette, opens the front door and yells out the sisters’ names. Juliette looks at Lea and says, “Thank you.” Michel again calls for Juliette. She smiles wistfully and replies, “I am here. I am here.”
Meaning, of course, that she can see how to rejoin the land of the living, thanks to her younger sister’s redemptive love. She’s no longer a monster; she’s a human being.
This dialogue pulls its weight in gold: two simple, declarative statements that sum up the journey this sad and courageous woman has made during the course of the last hour and fifty-five minutes. Moments like that are why I love the movies and keep turning to them for inspiration in my own writing.