Never has an actress looked so good while looking as bad as Kristin Scott Thomas does in first-time director (but long-time novelist) Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long or Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, for the Parisians. Many early viewers are heralding her turn in the French film as the highlight of her (already storied) career, and it’s not hard to see why.
Scott Thomas plays Juliette, a former doctor haunted by a horrific secret (an essential key to a great performance). After being released from prison after 15 years, Juliette is taken in by her sister Lea and her new family. The film opens on the scene when Juliette is freed—Thomas inhales cigarette smoke slowly, looking forlorn and bedraggled. When she arrives at Lea's house, she doesn't fare much better- Lea's children are warned not to ask questions about the mystery surrounding Juliette's incarceration, and her husband is resentful of her sister's sallow beauty.
Unlike another movie opening this week, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling starring Angelina Jolie, there is no melodrama here, only real, quiet, strong acting. Thomas’ Juliette does not rant at society’s injustices. Hers is a reactive performance. She watches the family. She watches her employers. She watches her sister. And somehow, our attention is held the entire time—I was completely captivated observing her, observing the world.
As it unfolds, the reasons behind Juliette’s imprisonment are not black and white (as they never are). She committed a horrific crime, but in the name of justice and the end of suffering—the morality questions are rampant. Hiding her deeds has kept Juliette in her own sort of prison, much worse than that she was released from, and in telling her story, she finds a new sort of freedom. Thomas plays the slow revelation with amazing nuance—we see her gradually come alive. She smiles, but her eyes stay sad. She sleeps with a barfly, but the sex isn’t good. She also, eventually, begins to warm to the ideas of family, belonging and her own humanity. It is the kind of painstaking conclusion that the French do best, and ultimately more satisfying than what a sweeping blockbuster could offer. After 28 years of living in France without having been a part of the local cinema, one feels that Thomas has finally found her element—here’s hoping she becomes a national hero and movie star there in her own right. We’ve read that the French have been forgiving so far of her British accent; it’s a start.
Thomas as Juliette is the kind of performance that critics always say deserves an Oscar, but rarely wins: an interior role in a small film in another language. But who knows? The critics have been rapturous. Maybe the Academy will be as well. The film will be a glaring absence in the Foreign Film category (France’s “The Class” is France’s selection this year), but we’d be glad to see Thomas in the Best Actress category again, where she belongs. There certainly has not been a better performance this year in any country.