If we were French, we would find Jerry Lewis funny. If we were French, we would know how to wear a scarf, and our lips would exist in a perpetually pursed state, always ready to say things like “Tu as bu mon vin cru.” (You have drunk my wine.) If we were French, we would, I hope, be pleased that Kristin Scott Thomas is able to speak our language without the perverse pronunciation of her British countrymen. As Frenchmen and women, we would immediately understand the meaning of the title of I’ve Loved You So Long, the superb and moving film, starring longtime French resident Thomas, that many say should have been this year’s Oscar selection from France. (released on DVD on March 3)
French schoolchildren know the song “Á la Claire Fontaine” from which Philippe Claudel’s movie takes its title (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime). Hundreds of years ago, the song was the nostalgic anthem of French settlers in Quebec and then the favorite of the Voyageurs who paddled their canoes to its rhythm. The verses of the song tell a fairly typical (for a folk song) story of a respite by a fountain, a lingering sadness, and a lost love. But the refrain seems to exist in another register altogether, expressing a profound and universal sentiment of love and longing. In its entirety, the refrain translates roughly to: I’ve loved you for a very long time. I will never forget you.
It’s this longing and commitment tinged with nostalgia that serves as the undercurrent of Claudel’s film. I’ve Loved You So Long tells the story of Juliette Fontaine (Thomas), released from fifteen years in prison to the home of her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein). There she takes up an uneasy place among Léa’s two young daughters, her husband, and her father-in-law who is mute since suffering a stroke. The film reveals its several mysteries, large and small, little by little—partly through halting conversations between the two sisters, but largely through the extraordinarily subtle changes in Thomas’ expressions as she makes her way in this new world. This fall in Chekhov’s The Seagull, Thomas pitched her emotions perfectly for the New York stage (I attended the Oct. 21 performance). A maximalist where it was necessary for the manipulative Arkadina, here, she is a minimalist, registering every slight shift in Juliette’s emotions with minute clarity.
Life in the university town of Nancy is joyous and warm—Léa’s mute father-in-law provides some quiet comedy as he exchanges post-it notes with his granddaughters—but is never free from an undercurrent of pain. Claudel doesn’t shy away from this sadness, nor does he make it melodramatic. Watching the American trailer for the film, you might get the sense that it is a thriller almost on a par with the 1992 movie Damage. This is, suffice it to say, not the case.
In fact, much of the film has to do with things that are never shown or that can’t be shown at all: memories—suppressed, cherished, newly-formed. At times, memory ties the two sisters together, but as often, it keeps them apart, as when Léa is dismayed to find she has no memory of Juliette’s bringing her to weekly dance lessons. One woman’s nostalgia is the other woman’s painful longing. And this is where the song comes in. For what the sisters both remember is playing the piano together—specifically, playing "Á la Claire Fontaine," a favorite for its echo of their family name. As they make their tentative approaches towards each other—and towards the events that put Juliette in prison—the song weaves through their lives, providing the leitmotif for that Gallic mixture of love and pain.
I’ve Loved You So Long is quite clearly a French film. As my teenager daughter put it, “They’re not doing anything.” And this is true: Claudel lets the camera rest on Thomas’ face, or on Zylberstein’s, for long shots during which they do nothing but think and remember. Complaint notwithstanding, my daughter did not leave the room. Either she had nothing better to do, or she could see that Claudel’s approach was paying off. He wisely trusts his actors to communicate the story without saying a word. (Another French element? An American movie would have shown us scenes of Léa taking Juliette shopping for new clothes. Claudel skips these scenes. His register of Juliette’s thawing is sex with a stranger.)
I’ve Loved You So Long isn’t the only recent film to use "Á la Claire Fontaine" as a theme. The excellent and overlooked The Painted Veil uses the song to surprisingly powerful effect. In a remote Chinese town, French nuns have taught the song in the orphanage they run. Kitty Fane, played by Naomi Watts, accompanies them on the piano. She is English, so it’s not her song; it’s not the children’s song either. But they share its lonesome refrain as a melody for their displacement and dislocation from the people and the places that they love.
It’s sad to think of those first French arrivals in the new world, singing about what they loved and would never forget, even as their memories of the France they had left behind must have grown dimmer and dimmer. At the end of the day, that’s exactly what Claudel’s film is about: our attempts to hold onto people as our connections to them grow frayed and thin.