The film has yet to bow here, yet Kristin Scott Thomas is already a magnet for Oscar buzz. In “I’ve Loved You So Long” by Philippe Claudel she plays Juliette, a woman just released from prison after serving a fifteen-year sentence for murder. Taken in by her younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), whom she hasn’t seen all this time, Juliette begins the tortuous re-entry into civilian life, facing the hostility of her sister’s husband, the revulsion her past inspires in potential employers, and the awkwardness of social rituals that now seem alien. Mostly, though, she faces her own struggle to turn from darkness and despair toward a new beginning.
As his first feature, “I’ve Loved You” also marks a new direction for multi-hyphenate Philippe Claudel – painter, screenwriter, playwright – but best known in France as a novelist. After adapting for film his novel “Grey Souls,” Claudel desired more creative control and came up with a searing premise for a feature. One shudders to imagine how Hollywood would have piled on the schmalz. In contrast, Claudel’s film is restrained and given to long silences, especially when the camera rests on the lovely, unadorned face of Scott Thomas, her haunted eyes conveying worlds beyond the frame.
If Americans are puzzled by the film’s title, French viewers will recognize the refrain of a popular children’s song (used to poignant effect in Edward Norton starrer “The Painted Veil.”). They’ll know that the line “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime” (“I’ve loved you so long”) is followed by “Jamais je ne t’oublierai” (I’ll never forget you). You might think this is all too insular and precious to cross the Atlantic. But Claudel succeeds in infusing the refrain of this wistful little song with multiple meanings, ranging from the strength of women and female bonds, to a fresh definition of family, to a reconsideration of mercy and self-forgiveness. This is potent stuff that unspools with exemplary craft and allusive images – watch for the sculpture of an angel at the top of the stairs in a museum visit – as Claudel conducts the viewer into the terrible secret at the film’s heart. (Warning: spoilers ahead).
indieWIRE: What was the impetus for the film?
Philippe Claudel: Initially it was very simple: just a desire to tell a story about women, because my novels are focused more on men. This time I wanted to explore a feminine universe.
iW: The story surrounding Juliette’s past is almost too cruel to contemplate.
PC: It’s the most terrible thing that can happen to us.
iW: Was it based on a news item in France?
PC: It’s not based on a true story. At the same time in France you often hear about people demanding the right to take their own life. And as it happens, when the film came out, there was a story of that sort in the press. It’s one of society’s pressing issues. And an artist is someone who feels the vibrations of the world and tries to transcribe them through his medium. I wanted to explore the pain of this woman, placed in front of an impossible choice.
iW: Are you concerned that your film’s dark subject will turn viewers off here? After all, people go to the movies seeking escape…
PC: It’s the same in France. It’s the comedies and thrillers that are successful. People love horror, but in thrillers. Once you speak of pain and suffering it’s a different matter. But I didn’t think about that. I think about the sincerity of my writing. I try to be true, to pose questions. Shake people up a bit and make them look in a direction they wouldn’t normally. The surprise is that the film has been a great success in France and other countries where it’s come out. Which proves that people respond to a film tackling grave subjects that question and go against the prevailing mood.
iW: In its willingness to confront suffering, your film calls up “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
PC: I didn’t especially like that film. The subject has already been magnificently explored by Dalton Trumbo in “Johnny Got His Gun.” When I saw the Julian Schnabel I felt I was seeing a lesser version of the Trumbo film. It’s exactly the same story: a soldier, an amputee, can’t speak, he’s locked in, etc. A masterpiece. But the character in “Diving Bell” didn’t interest or move me.
iW: “Grey Souls” was no cakewalk. Would you say you gravitate toward the dark side?
PC: You know, right now in Paris they’re putting on my first play – “Parle-moi d’Amour” – a pure comedy about a marathon fight between a middle-aged couple. I explore different avenues. What interests me is to understand our pain, along with our tremdnous power for renewal. “Grey Souls,” by the way, took place during WWI’; hard to do something rosy. But I want to point out that [my current film] starts somber, but is full of hope. It’s about someone who returns to life. In the countries where it came out people are happy to see this journey toward the light. They’ve said, thanks to your film, I feel less alone. For me that’s the greatest compliment.
iW: What made you decide right off to make a film of “I’ve Loved You” rather than a novel?
PC: I wanted to show faces, work with actors, light, sound. And because of the silence. I wanted to work without words, to construct the portrait of a mature woman, and explore the possibility of expression without language. Film par excellence, you know, was silent film. You have splendid actors and many masterpieces: F. W. Murnau‘s “Sunrise,” Chaplin, Griffiths.
iW: You’ve said, “I write novels like a filmmaker, and I make films like a novelist.” Could you elaborate on that?
PC: The best explanation is that I’m not imprisoned in any one medium. In films I use techniques that are not necessarily what other directors attempt. When I write novels I also use techniques which can run counter to those that a novelist would use. In this film there are lots of scenes that I’ve composed like paintings, with a great attention to detail. The framing is very important, to place my camera in a particular spot and then allow the actress to interpret what she wanted. If Kristin gave me what I wanted, it was perfect, if not, I asked her to change it a bit. My work is very controlled. I leave nothing to chance. Chance comes afterward… Making a film is like cooking a pot au feu. You choose the best carrots, the best potatoes the best meat, etc., and you throw all that together – but if there’s no soul, so to speak, it won’t yield much.
iW: How are your novels cinematic?
PC: They’re extremely visual, according to readers. And sometimes I use montage effects and “cuts,” the scenes progress as in a film.
iW: How did you lean how to direct a film?
PC: In fact, it’s not very complicated.
iW: You’re kidding.
PC: For one thing, it’s not something I just picked up from one day to the next. I made lots of shorts when I was 25. I’ve been a screenwriter for ten years and worked with directors.
iW: But What about the technical aspects?
PC: I labored over my screenplay, the design of the film, and arrangement of its shots. I made a kind of storyboard. But the main task is to choose one’s team. The director is not the one in charge of the camera and lighting. He’s the one who says to the DP, Right now I want a pale, wan light on Kristin’s face. And it’s the DP’s talent that achieves that. As director you have an overarching vision, and you choose technicans who each have their own expertise. There’s a great Hitchcock anecdote: the only time he looked in a camera he looked through the wrong end! What better proof that the director is not a technician?
iW: Speed seems to be the order of the day. Yet “I’ve Loved You”” adopts a slow, deliberate cadence.
PC: I like speed in thrillers. It’s a rhythm adapted to the subject. But if I’m going to explore the destroyed interior life of a woman, I need to capture the slowness with which she tries to be reborn, the arduous task of rediscovering her place in the world. I need a rhythm and pace that shows that, and gives the public time to absorb it as well. But afterward I had to strike the right balance – otherwise it could get boring.
iW: Are you excited about the Oscar talk surrounding Kristin?
PC: I would be very happy for Kristin if she won – it’s an amazing performance – so it would be no surprise. But for me, the most important award is the reaction of the audience. This is an intimate movie for a small audience, so the big success it’s had so far feels very strange.
iW: Did you sense as you were filming that you were getting from Kristin a spectacular performance?
PC: I didn’t choose Kristin by chance, you know. I felt her talent when I saw her in different movies. At the same time I had the feeling – forgive me for being a little pretentious – that as a director I could do even better with her. Every day it was a great pleasure for me to see Kristin in action. I was very prepared. Knew exactly what I wanted, take by take, scene by scene. At the same time she and I had a mutual trust. She asked me to give her the chance to play the first take like she wanted and I agreed. Often the first take might have technical problems, so I’d ask Kristin to explore another mood – and after this second take, I ended up with very rich material.
iW: In a novel you can go into a character’s consciousness. In this film you dispense a lot with language. So how do you make your character come alive?
PC: I was fascinated by the possibilities for expressiveness even when mute. I’ve worked with handicapped children, some totally mute and deaf. The challenge was to create forms of communication without words. In a novel, language is your principal tool, you try to build pictures in the mind of the reader. When you write a screenplay, the language is just a transition, the final goal is a picture on the screen, it’s the only thing the audience sees.
It’s interesting, too, to be aware of what’s beyond the border of the screen. There’s another continent outside the frame. Like in this film, there’s the prison, which you never see. It’s like that film “Cat People” by Jacques Tourneur. We never see the cat woman, only the shadow, and hear the growls. That made the movie all the scarier; without the actual image my imagination ran wild. I wanted to show the universe of this prison on the face of Juliette, a sad, grey face. Her cigarette addiction, a big heavy coat like the luggage of the past. It’s wonderful to use many details like that.
iW: Would you say that your teaching in prison came to bear on this film?
PC: It changed my vision of human beings. I learned nothing is simple. I learned about the impossibility of judging others. Before [that experience] I was pretty judgmental. After, though, I gave up my certitude about what is wrong, what is right, what is good, what is bad. Now I see it as far more more complex.
iW: Which contemporary filmmakers do you admire?
PC: Claude Sautet, the early Woody Allen – “Manhattan” and “Broadway Danny Rose” I watch every six months. Lubitsch, Capra, Kubrick. I’m very impressed by the work of Inarittu, especially “21 Grams.” And Sarah Polley. Given her youth, it’s incredible how she was able to make a mature, perfect work [“Away From Her“] about a couple bedeviled by aging.