French novelist Philippe Claudel’s first feature as director, “I’ve Loved You So Long,” is a quiet, layered narrative with a remarkable central performance by Kristin Scott-Thomas as a woman, Juliette, closed-off for reasons we slowly discover, who keeps to herself.
The plot is simple: it is her return to society on parole and how each relationship is fraught and new, whether with family, neighbors, interesting strangers. Elsa Zylberstein plays counterpoint to Scott-Thomas, capturing the more open, thoughtful potential the two siblings once shared. The way Claudel uses décor, costume and sound are among his subtle knacks: always commenting, but hardly shouting.
His characters read books. Visit favored paintings in a local museum. They make cultural references offhandedly. A dinner party and conversations in cafes do not seem strained. Late in the movie, Juliette sits alone on a park bench. In her hands, a paperback with the uniform design, black and red type on matte cream, of Gallimard’s NRF series. A small smile flickers across her lips as she finishes the last page, closes the book. It’s a look of civilized contentment. It’s an eminently readerly glimpse. As it turns out, the book she finishes is one with a figure that another character had compared her to. “She is reading the last page of the book,” Claudel tells me in his heavily accented English. “I asked her, I want you to really read the last passage of this novel. She doesn’t know this novel. It was a real discovery and I wanted to catch that. It is a very special novel, the end, a beautiful page. Love between a man and a woman, totally mute. It was like in code because with the story of Juliette, during all the story, she is totally mute. I like this possible connection between different arts. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, I don’t know exactly. But I’m not just a writer. Since my childhood I’m fascinated by the possibilities of the arts. I tried to play guitar, I tried to paint, I tried to write, to make photos. I like exploration in different ways.”
But you return to the page. “Yes, because I think it is more simple attitude. I like that. I like to be in the world and at the same time, in the world I am a simple person around simple people. I am a seismograph, and I try to record all the vibration of how the world, and society [moves]. After the moment, I have to translate these impressions with the writing process, which is very easy and very cheap. We don’t need producers or money! It’s more simple. When I have a laptop with me, which is constantly the case, I can write everywhere.”
We speak of very specific details. “I wanted to show pieces of real life, to use an instrument of moviemaking like a little microscope,” he says of his gentle approach. “I wanted to examine very closely moments of our life. It was without big effects, without [spectacle], without too much. But just a sense of reality, the sense of modesty. I wanted to put together different pieces like when you make a puzzle, a patchwork. I think since two, three, four years there are many, many movies, how you say in English, where you put together different stories and destiny and characters. Like ‘Babel.’ Innaritu’s ’21 Grams,’ Paul Haggis’ ‘Crash.’ I think it’s very interesting, but sometimes artificial. Except for maybe a masterpiece like, in my opinion, ’21 Grams.’ There is perfect balance, it turns out, in the connections to the different destinies of their lives. But it’s not the case with this movie, but maybe a little bit. We don’t have very many destinies and very many stories connected but at the same time, we have a principal character, Juliette, and around her, there are many, many characters, each with possible stories. Like underground stories. The policeman; the Iraqi doctor; Grandpa, totally mute, et cetera, et cetera.”
We could walk out the door with any of them. “It was very important for me to write with a great precision, all of this destiny. I think one movie is not just one story. It’s not just one topic and one theme. I prefer to work with a lot of topics and themes. Maybe it’s too rich? Maybe it’s too much for the audience. But I prefer to put too much topic than less, you know? I prefer more than less. After, the audience chooses between these topics. Maybe some people will be more interested by the theme of the secret… other people by the theme of the rebirth of a woman… other people by the theme of the life together. I propose these things and after, the audience chooses. I wanted to work with very simple and basic material. I refuse the movie effects; I wanted a very basic style to shoot this story. It was very important to use economy of camera movement and I prefer to take my time and to give the time to the audience to enter into the story. My goal, it was to disappear. My hope is that the audience will be totally attracted by the story of Juliette, but at the same time I hope the audience forgot that the author of this universe, or this screening, the audience will be this close to this character. Like when you are with a friend. I try to give a seat to the audience. To be beside the character.”
“I’ve Loved You So Long” opens Friday at Landmark Century.