Her name is Juliette. And since she's played by Kristin Scott Thomas, there's something regal in her bearing, a Paris catwalk in her cheekbones, her brows, the chic haircut.
But Juliette has a vacant, faraway look in her eyes. She bites her nails. She smokes.
She doesn't say much. And when she does speak, she's evasive. Where has she been?
"Il a complique," she says. "It's complicated."
Only it isn't.
French filmmaker Philippe Claudel's spare, sad and lyrical melodrama "I've Loved You So Long" is about guilt and grief, that much is clear from the start. But will it be a tale of incurable heartbreak, attempted atonement or simple redemption?
We meet Juliette at her awkward reunion from a long-estranged sister (Elsa Zylberstein). Juliette is coming to stay with Lea and her family, Lea's two adorable adopted children, her husband Luc and his mute but still-sharp stroke-victim father.
Juliette has been out of the family for many years. And not on a "long trip," as she tells the precocious kids. She's been in prison.
Things are tense around the house. What's she capable of? Can she be trusted? Men who come in contact with her — her probation officer, an academic colleague of Lea's — are intrigued, smitten even. But Juliette betrays nothing.
Claudel, an award-winning French novelist, gives up Juliette's secrets grudgingly.
Each painful revelation — in a job interview, a dinner party, a whispered exchange between Lea and Luc, Juliette's "confessions" to Luc's mute father — arrives with a quiet thunderclap. The film's plaintive solo guitar score mirrors this secrets-held-dearly tone.
We glean details of her crime and a sense of the woman's defiance, her pride and her temper. As "I've Loved You So Long" makes its way from melancholia to hope or dashed hope, we feel her pain even as we wonder what she's done and what she will do.
Take away the French dialogue, the French setting (Nancy, Meurthe-et-Moselle) and Thomas, acting in French, and this might pass for the best subtitled movie Lifetime ever made. But Thomas elevates it with every nuance, every furtive glance that looks into the distance for some relief that isn't there. It's a cryptic performance in a mysterious movie, acting with real heft behind it.
Might there be an Oscar nomination here for the multilingual Thomas, 14 years beyond her "Four Weddings and a Funeral" breakthrough? Let's hope so. In a profession that routinely casts aside leading ladies when they hit 40, it's a shame a great one had to take her act to France to remind us that actors, like wines, only improve with age.
I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
4 stars (out of 5)
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein
Director: Philippe Claudel
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Industry rating: PG-13 for thematic material and smoking