One of the most beautiful images on screen this year is the beginning of a French film called “I’ve Loved You So Long,” the story of sisters reunited after a long absence. As the movie opens, there is a close-up on the face of Juliette, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, who appears without any make-up, utterly vulnerable. Her stillness is eloquent and deeply moving and it orients us to the story that is about to unfold.
The title comes from a French children’s song. And we find out that Juliette has been in prison for a shocking crime. She barely knows her much younger sister, LÃ©a (Elsa Zylberstein), who has come to pick up Juliette and bring her to her home with LÃ©a’s husband, daughters, and father-in-law.
I spoke with writer-director Phillippe Claudel, best known as a novelist, about the movie, and began by asking him about that opening shot.
PC: It was very important for me to begin this story with shock, to give the audience the face of a destroyed woman, a dead woman, to take the time with my camera, to take my time to give the time to the audience to explore and enter deep inside this character. I chose a very classic style without a lot of camera movement, to work with the audience, to create a connection, space for the audience. I wanted to start with a simple and tragic picture with the face of Juliette.
My first question for Kristen when we spoke about the movie was one condition. I told her, “I want to destroy your beauty, to compose with you, the real character of Juliette, to read 15 years of prison just with your face.” Many actresses would accept that in pre-production but be different in shooting, but not Kristen. She was very professional. She understood the truth of this character needed this dirty face.
NM Your previous stories were all novels. What made you decide to tell this story as a movie?
PC: You need human experience for work. The novels I wrote before age 34 were constantly bad. The beginning of the true writing requires pain, love, experience of life, to became a man. After age 34, my novels suddenly were a little bit more good. It’s the same thing for the movie process. I wrote screenplays but didn’t feel ready to direct for 10 years. By then I had magined the story so that it was very clear in my mind. I was not afraid. I was very cool and knew exactly what i wanted.
NM: The movie has a lot of stillness, especially for a first-time film-maker. What made you decide to present the story that way?
PC: When I finished the writing of the screenplay, i thought about the style and it was important to adopt a very pure and simple and classic style for the story. It is a very strong and powerful story. I want the audience to forget the camera and director, the movie-making. I want the audience just to be with the characters.
NM: Even though as the movie begins Juliette has been released from prison, emotionally she is still a prisoner through her emotional isolation. And other characters are dealing with other forms of imprisonment, like LÃ©a’s father-in-law, who is mute as the result of a stroke, and the sisters’ mother, who has dementia.
PC: I wanted to give different variations of the topic, a true prison and a metaphoric prison, the lonely life, the secrets, the little adopted girl, who has the secret of her birth, the illness of the mother. There are many many prisons in our lives. Maybe the lesson of the movie is to show the importance of others and they way they can help you to break the walls.
NM: One of the characters in the film speaks of his work with prisoners. Is that based on your experience?
PC: I worked 11 years in prison, teaching, starting when I was very young 22 or 23. when we are young like that we are too sure. We believe we know everything. It was a shock for me, a necessary shock, to discover another face of humanity. Nothing is simple, nothing is basic, all life and all people are very complex. It is impossible to have a basic judgment of good/bad, right/wrong. This experience changed me totally, i was not the same after. Many novels I wrote after this experience were very inspired by it. They were not about prison but about tragedy of our condition and the impossibility to know deeply the other people.
When Michel said the border between good and bad is very thin, it was a very personal, autobiographical scene.
When I stopped in 2000, I was always obsessed by this special universe. It was difficult to escape. I wrote a text like therapy, with sounds of music of the prison’s keys. It was an essay just different scenes of prison. It was very cinemagraphic and a French producer asked me to adapt it for the screen, but it was impossible.
NM: How is making a movie different from writing a book?
PC: I knew immediately this story was a movie and not a novel. I imagined to write a story about a woman, a desire to show this woman with pictures. Also, I wanted to work with real people. I like to write but it is a solitary and comfortable pleasure. To tell a story in a novel, you don’t need money and you don’t need people. But sometimes it is good to work with an artistic team. And my novels are about men, but when I imagine movies, it’s often with female faces.
NM: Kristen Scott Thomas is an English actress who lives in France. In the US, she is better known for her roles in films like “The English Patient.” Does she make many films in French?
PC: It is a very curious paradox. She lives in France but is constantly under-employed. It was very exciting to propose the real first lead for her in a French film. I liked having both Kristen Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein do something different. Kristen is beautiful, a little bit cold, aristocratic. I wanted to give her a very complex character and a very mute character. It is wonderful to play with an amazing expressive face, a pleasure to observe her. I told her to explore the first take and after that I would direct her. And Elsa, who is known for fashion and glamour, I cut her hair and put her in very basic clothes.
NM: What makes you laugh?
PC: Many many things, maybe in this moment, the President of Italy. Often the people who govern us are very comic; maybe that’s their role. And my daughter, every day.