I've Loved You So Long Review
Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) is what you would call an intimate slow-burner, one made very much in the French style with deep dramatic performances and a lot of tension and mystery, particularly in the motivations and actions of the characters. Unfortunately, the slow-burner fizzles out at a very late stage in the film when the director – author and screenwriter Philippe Claudel directing his first film – decides to explain and reveal everything in an unsatisfactory manner that totally undermines the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty that has sustained the film over its two-hour length.
There are indications that this is going to be the case, but initially the film starts out in a promising way, presenting an intriguing situation with a degree of subtlety and mystery. There’s a crime, but it was committed a long time ago and there are no dramatic flashbacks to the incident. Rather the film remains in the present where Juliette Fontaine having done her time in prison, fifteen years, has now been released and has gone to stay with her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) in the provinces, in Nancy in the Lorraine district of France. (When the director pointedly has the family sit around the table and explain to the children a reason for Kristin Scott Thomas having a slight English accent while her sister doesn’t, already the suspicion starts to form that you are going to have everything else explained to you as if you were a child). Trying to build a new life for herself isn’t going to be easy, getting to know her sister again, fitting back into society, particularly as Juliette has clearly been hardened by her experience and doesn’t seem to be that comfortable around people, around families and around children – and they don’t seem too comfortable around her either. There’s also the matter of that fifteen year prison sentence which evidently speaks of a terrible crime committed in the past, the kind of crime that carries a stigma when you are trying to seek reemployment – that of a murderer.
The fact that there is going to be some tension between an unforgiving society and Juliette’s attempt to find her place in it again can be taken as given - you can expect employers to be outraged and friends struggle to comprehend her sudden appearance as Léa’s sister after a long absence – as unfortunately can the fact that she will gradually rediscover her humanity and gain the acceptance of others. While that is sometimes dealt with in a direct and heavy-handed manner, Claudel nonetheless finds some humour in the society that Juliette is trying to adapt to being rather boorish and provincial, but also uses several characters and their own experience and issues to show the options that might be available to her. Some find escape in books, others look to art as a means of reconciling troubles in their past, while one – Juliette’s probation officer at the police station – dreams of a long-cherished trip to find the source of the Orinoco. Among this group there are those who find a way to cope and others who don’t. The worst prison, it seems, is the one you create for yourself.
And that seems to be the problem that Claudel has with I’ve Loved You For So Long, creating a bind of academism that the film itself can’t escape. It dutifully lays down the groundwork, presenting the view from the social services, the employment agency, the employer, the family, and all the people who have to deal with bringing a criminal back into society. All these standard character types fulfil their roles and serve the purpose the film demands of them. Even Kristin Scott Thomas, usually such a fine and subtle actress, falls into the trap of melodramatic martyrdom mannerism that the traditional not-wearing-make-up method fails to make any more real, gritty or “brave”. What prevents the film from slipping into a predictable path however is the fact that the severity of Juliette’s crime, once revealed, makes you wonder just how that redemption is ever going to be achieved. And for as long as the mysterious motivation behind Juliette’s unspoken crime remains inexplicable and irrational, the film still holds an air of intrigue. The carefully balanced approach however should alert the viewer that this is not a film by the Dardenne Brothers - one in particular comes to mind - and that all this orderly laying out of the situation is likely to result in a similar neat resolution of either redemption or understanding where none should really be expected.
Those fears are fuelled with an academic discussion between schoolteacher Léa and her students over ‘Crime and Punishment’ no less (what are the odds of that?). The discussion turns heated over how any attempt to explain the motivations and actions of the crime that has been committed must inevitably fail to grasp the complexity and totality of the situation. Ironically, I’ve Loved You For So Long fails to practice what it preaches and not only imposes an Dostoveskian order on such matters, but worse, it suggests that not only can everything be explained, but that it will work out for the best in the end, in the process undermining the difficult questions that had initially been posed with an improbable redemptive ending. And, with all the little concessions and clues that were being dropped along the way, did you ever really doubt that it would?
I’ve Loved You So Long is released in the UK by Lionsgate. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is coded for Region 2.
Shot on HD cameras and clearly sourced from a High Definition transfer (a Blu-ray release of the film is also available from Lionsgate in the UK), the image quality is superb even on the Standard Definition DVD. Almost perfect really. The tones are appropriately subdued and interiors are dim without the film losing any of its detail and clarity. Transferred progressively and anamorphically at the original 1.85:1 ratio, you can’t really fault this.
There is only one audio option, which is the original Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, which is more than adequate for the purposes of the film since it is principally dialogue-based. The dialogue is centre-based with only some widening of the sound for the music score. It’s a subtle mix then that serves the film well, with a little bit of depth and reverberation, but never distracting or drawing attention away from the screen.
Optional English subtitles are provided, as is an English Hard of Hearing option. The subtitles are in a white font and are perfectly clear.
The main extra feature is an excessively long Interview with Philippe Claudel (58:51). There is some interesting information imparted - working as a director for the first time with Il y a longtemps que je t’aime he brought a lot of personal themes and autobiographical matter to the film – but it goes on far too long, examining the characters, over-explaining their motivations and relationships, and covering every aspect of the filming. It does show that every element of the film was controlled and purposeful, but depending on your outlook that can be a good thing or a bad thing.
There are 7 short Deleted Scenes (5:22) included, mostly little incidental details. The director provides an optional commentary however explaining how they tone down some aspects of the film.
Director Philippe Claudel insists in the interview included on this DVD that he made the film for a purpose and saw it through to what for him is a meaningful conclusion. Still, one can’t help but feel that I’ve Loved You So Long has been compromised, the film forsaking the difficult issues it raises for a contrived resolution that ultimately renders it fake. The presentation of the film on DVD by Lionsgate is outstanding and could only really be bettered by the Blu-ray edition.