Introduction written by Emmanuelle Vanborre
A Myriad of Questions
Released in 2008, Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (or I’ve Loved You So Long) received several French and international awards. The director received the César Award for Best Debut, Elsa Zylberstein received the César Award for Best Supporting Actress, and Kristen Scott Thomas received the Best British Actress Award from the London Film Critics' Circle.
The movie poses a myriad of questions in the poignant story of a mother, Juliette Fontaine, who comes out of prison after she served fifteen years for the murder of her own son. The story shows her slow adjustment to life outside of prison as she tries to cope with absence and loss and with the generous love of her sister Léa. She stays with her sister and her family: her husband Luc, their two adopted daughters P’tit Lys and Emelia and Luc’s mute father Papy Paul. Luc is rather reluctant to having a child-murderer stay with them and is especially anxious when she is around their two daughters. Léa does not remember much of her sister as their parents prevented her from visiting Juliette in prison and she does not know much about her crime either as Juliette always refused to talk about it. Despite all that, Léa thought about her sister during all these years and seems happy when she accepts to live with her and her family. Forgiveness and redemption are apparent throughout the movie but the director subtly does not provide all the answers to the questions raised by the story and the different characters.
Forgiveness, Death and Love
The director is also a writer and it seems that at times the movie feels like a book. The dialogue, pace and tone of the movie may remind us of the experience we have when we read a book, in the comfort of an armchair. But the questions raised may take us away from this comfortable passive position and force us to actively think and formulate an opinion about the issues conveyed here. Indeed, how does one react to euthanasia? Is it understandable? Can anything justify ending the life of another person? Could it be explained in certain circumstances? Without going into the debate about the death penalty here, we may wonder when it is acceptable to “kill” someone, if it ever is… Then the question of how to deal with a murderer is also posed.
When Juliette Fontaine comes out of prison, people’s reactions vary. Her sister welcomes her in her home as if nothing had ever happened, or almost as we may wonder if Léa’s attitude is always unselfish and loving. Some of the decisions she took in the past may have been influenced by her sister’s situation. Her parents may also have influenced her by preventing her from having any contact with her sister. Like her parents, some characters in the movie reject Juliette as a murderer. This makes us think about our reaction to people when they are in prison and when they get out. How can we forgive them and try to help them readjust to and integrate in society? How can we, as Christians, forgive and love a murderer or someone believed to be one? How does the reason why people are in prison influence us?
The questions become broader and we can wonder how to forgive anyone who wronged us or someone we loved, who caused pain and suffering. Are there limits to our forgiveness? To our love? To what extent can love motivate us and help us overcome pain and death? In this movie, love plays an extremely important part. Is it portrayed realistically? Was Juliette’s crime motivated by love? Could she survive after prison without her sister’s love? How can love help mourning?
Other characters in the movie portray different ways of dealing with the arrival of what may be a disturbing presence in their lives. Léa’s husband is at first cold and suspicious about his sister-in-law and he does not want her near his children. But he gradually warms up to her and seems to accept her after she proves to be trustworthy. This slow process is interesting and may offer us some elements to answer the questions raised in the movie. Besides, the attitude of Léa’s children is essential as they may help Juliette readjust to real life outside of prison by their unprejudiced love. They may not know about the crime Juliette has committed but their behavior may show us what innocent, unconditional love can be like and how it can help heal. Léa’s colleague Michel also plays an important part and seems to show that it takes time, patience and an open-heart to understand and love people, even if, or especially if, society categorizes them, stigmatizes them as murderers.
The role of the policeman also raises questions about suffering. Juliette’s suffering seems evident but the movie shows that in less obvious ways, or for less obvious reasons, other people are struggling with life and need both comprehension and love. Issues such as loneliness and depression may not be easy to admit for some people or may remain hidden until the persons sadly disappear. It seems that this movie makes us aware of the other, makes us think about other people and how we can help them and love them unselfishly, and it makes us ponder on the unique power of love.