All Conflict is Drama.
All Drama is Artifice.
The first film by Philippe Claudel, a French novelist turned screenwriter, turned writer-director, I’ve Love You so Long is a masterclass in emotional manipulation. Far from the cerebral complexity of Ingmar Bergman or even the constructed pseudo-realism of Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008), Claudel reveals himself to be a dramaturgical martinet, a man whose skill as a story-teller allows him to effortlessly control the flow of information to the audience while using music, acting and camera-work to impose a precise emotional state upon them. I’ve Loved You So Long is a film that is experienced and not merely watched. However, as purposeful as Claudel’s story-telling may be, the film does beg one serious question: does the ending undermine the rest of the film?
When we meet Juliette, she is a fragile and almost painfully withdrawn woman. She is warmly greeted by her sister Lea but the warmth flows only in one direction. We then learn that Juliette has been in prison for a long time and that her decision to come and live with her sister has more to do with the demands of the French prison service than any desire she might have to rekindle her relationship with her younger sister. Lea is a polar opposite to Juliette. Where Juliette is withdrawn and elegantly purposeful, Lea is physically affectionate and nervously distracted. Later in the film we learn that Lea is an academic but she no longer publishes much, this establishes her as someone who is more concerned with living a pleasant life than in chasing down personal demons and ideals such as the truth. Lea lives with her down to earth husband, her silent ever-reading father in law and two wonderfully effervescent children adopted by the couple after a visit to Vietnam.
This cast of characters is very much in keeping with Claudel’s output as a writer. His short novel La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh (2005) also includes a young Asian girl living in France. Indeed, even thematically, one can see a line tying I’ve Loved You so Long to works such as La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh and Le Rapport de Brodeck (2007). All three works deal with people who are out of place in their communities either because they are exiles or because they are immigrants. This alienation from his characters’ immediate surroundings are then used as catalysts for exploring the characters’ own loneliness, alienation and memory. In the case of La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh it is the death of Linh’s family, in Le Rapport de Brodeck it is the murder of a man known only as ‘The Other’. Here is is Juliette’s isolation and culpability of the crime that separated her from her family.
The structure of the film is intriguingly psychoanalytical. The narrative is driven forward by insights into Juliette’s past. These new insights gradually liberate Juliette from the mental prison that she has inhabited since before she was even put on trial (a prison so effective that early on, Juliette is incapable of enjoying the pleasures of a free life, her attempt at sex results in an experience she is amusingly honest about not enjoying). However, interestingly, these insights do not necessarily flow from Juliette or even impact her directly. The traditional psychoanalytical model of story-telling requires that the protagonist undergo some hardship after which a deeper, liberating level of self-awareness is gained but the process of understanding Juliette is spread out across her family and friends. For example, Juliette’s brother in law is initially hostile to the idea of her looking after the kids, but, following Juliette’s resetting of his shoulder, his fears dissipate allowing her a better position within the house and a greater degree of freedom and happiness. The psycho-analytical model is still in place but this insight is Luc’s. Not Juliette’s.
Indeed, if there is any psychoanalysis going on, it is not of Juliette but of us as on-lookers. Claudel populates his world with surrogates for the caring on-looker. Characters who exist purely in order to ask the right question for us and appeal to Juliette in the right way so as to ensure that she will drop her defences and confide in us a) about what she did and, far more importantly, b) why she did it. Consider, for example, Luc’s father. A lovely, warm old man who, following a stroke, is capable only of beaming and reading books. Because he cannot ask questions and is so omni-benevolent, he is the perfect human companion for Juliette in the early days of her presence in the family home. She can sit with him and share her thoughts with him safe in the knowledge that these secrets will never be passed on and that no judgement will be made. The same is true of Lea’s children who exist purely in order to innocently ask awkward questions of Juliette; “where have you been?”, “why is she funny?”, “didn’t she have children?”. The same is true of the men in Juliette’s life from the clearly psychologically suffering parole officer who shows Juliette how to get by and the warm and accepting academic who “knows what it’s like” to be in prison.
In effect, Claudel is practicing psychoanalysis not only of the audience but also on Juliette’s friends and family. Juliette knows exactly what she has done and has made her peace with it but the point of the film is, can we (and by ‘we’ I mean both the audience and our convenient community of stand-ins) forgive and accept a criminal such as Juliette?
Aside from controlling the flow and pitch of the information about Juliette through tight narrative control, Claudel is also shameless in his deployment of what can only be called genre tropes to put us in the right frame of mind.
Early scenes feature Juliette sitting on her own in cafes smoking and looking out the window. Then we have loveless sex and images of people looking unhappy and isolated in public spaces. These constitute a form of cinematic language that is so highly-ritualised and self-referential that they are reminiscent of Robert Heinlein’s “The door irised”, a line that is taken by many SF fans to be the ne plus ultra of show-don’t-tell story telling. If the first line of a story is “the door irised” then you immediately know that you are in for an SF story. In this case, the early scenes of Juliette smoking on her own in a café and then being unhappy and monosyllabic in a car allow you to know that you are in the arena of moral and psychological complexity and petty bourgeois melodrama. The film even includes scenes where the plight of the characters is compared to characters from art and literature and, to cap it all off, we have the kind of weekend house party lifted straight from Chabrol’s Pleasure Party (1975) or Tacchella’s Cousin, Cousine (1975) that blends rural idylls with drunks holding court on matters philosophical. Indeed, it is interesting to see that these tropes continue to be popular with French film makers after they were so brutally mocked and deconstructed by films such as Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).
This leads us to the film’s ultimate question: does Chabrol betray his own film by presenting us with an easy ending?
A story that begins with the line “the door irised” effectively determines what our expectations for that story should be. Like a Bond film that begins with a high-octane action scene or a Horror film that foreshadows the violence to come, we know from those opening scenes that it would be ridiculous to complain that the story is ‘unrealistic’ because a spaceship turns up, or to moan about violence when the second body is dumped on the floor. Genres are not just limitations for authors, they are also easily marketable sets of expectations for readers and in aping so much of the language of French drama, Claudel is priming the pumps for a story of unhappiness and moral compromise.
We are then given performances of considerable delicacy and poise by Scott Thomas and Zylberstein that are not only individually compelling but also play off each other perfectly as Juliette’s resentment at Lea’s apparent amnesia is allowed to slowly escape like gas from a punctured bicycle tire. Along with these two strong performances we also have appropriately secondary men from the man-child husband Luc to the almost ridiculously sensitive love interest and the whole thing is suffused with warmth by intensely cute and loveable old people and children. Indeed, having built up the parents as these uncaring louts who flushed their own daughter down the memory tube, the actually appearance of the now senile mother comes as a weirdly anti-climactic moment in which the mother’s confusion forces her to engage with Juliette as though she were a child again, all guilt and bad feeling forgotten for a few seconds before the forces of senility reassert themselves and Juliette is taken for a nurse,
With even Juliette’s mother welcoming her back (if only for a second), it is clear that regardless of Juliette’s crimes… we are compelled to forgive and understand her. Her crime is one of the most iron-clad of modern taboos but so expert is Claudel’s emotional manipulation that we cannot but feel for the ice maiden who has melted with unrelenting kindness.
But then Claudel has Lea’s younger child wander into Juliette’s room and uncover a photo. This sets up a confrontation between Lea and Juliette in which Juliette’s motivations for her crime are laid bare and Juliette is essentially exculpated entirely. This feels like an utter cop out, unable to deal with the awkwardness of effectively convincing an audience to forgive a criminal, Claudel tries to spin things around and go “Ahah! She was innocent all along! Don’t you feel foolish for doubting her at the beginning of the film?” except of course you do not feel any such thing. Claudel’s skill as a manipulator is far too great and the direction of his story-telling far too heavily accented towards forgiveness to make the audience feel any such guilt. In fact, the final scene raises the question as to why Juliette was not open from the beginning. Not only might it have saved her from being ripped from her family and friends, but it would also have saved her the hardship or rehumanising herself. However, as the film has diverted so many of its psychoanalytical resources towards the audience instead of the central character, Claudel has no answer to give us.
A beautifully made and incredibly heart-warming piece of dramatic cinema, I’ve Loved You So Long shows flashes of brilliance and some willingness to grapple with really complex emotional dynamics but the great swoop of Claudel’s story-telling is ultimately undermined by an act of cowardly betrayal.