These Pricking Thorns of Guilt

Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you. (Isa. 49:15)

Death and Guilt have a great deal in common.

They both have the ability to bring life to a shuddering standstill. Both are terrifying consequences of our humanity. And both will have profound consequences for those we love, no matter how diligently we prepare for them.

I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime), the acclaimed debut film from French novelist Philippe Claudel, delves deep into the issue of guilt, particularly the ways in which humans struggle to confront it, and the dramatic effect it has on those who suffer its pangs, and on their loved ones.

Juliette Fontaine (Kristen Scott Thomas), a soul-weary, middle-aged woman with a secret past, has just been released from the prison where she served a 15-year sentence for a heinous (and, initially, unknown) crime. The challenge of returning to normal life after such a long internment is a difficult one, and an offer of lodging and support from her younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), is eagerly embraced by the counselors overseeing her rehabilitation. Juliette, whose apathetic demeanor earned her the name "The Absent One" from her former inmates, is unmoved by her sister's generosity, but being without alternatives, she accepts.

Léa, a professor of literature at Nancy-Université in Lorraine, welcomes Juliette into her home, which she shares with her husband, her father-in-law, and her two adopted Vietnamese daughters. Her efforts to rekindle their once-vibrant sisterly friendship are to no avail; Juliette's facade is impenetrable. Undeterred by her sister's implacable indifference, Léa struggles to revive Juliette's joie de vivre, but finds the task made more difficult by the lack of shared memories between the two of them—an obstacle erected years ago when her parents chose to scrub every trace of her ignominious sister from Léa's childhood.

Forced to search for work in a world that barely interests her, Juliette is brought up sharply by the harsh realities of her past. Prospective employers, initially unconcerned by her previous troubles, are horrified and repulsed when they discover the true reason behind her lengthy prison stay. Léa's husband, Luc, while trusting his wonderful wife completely, is far from comfortable with her sister; Juliette's' presence in his house and around his daughters is a constant source of concern. Her awkward job interviews, her weekly parole visits to the local police station, and her interaction with Léa's university friends eventually coalesce into a distressingly coherent account of events, the details of her tragic and lamentable past drawn into sharper, more painful focus.

Gradually, Juliette's exposure to the unstinting love of Léa and her children begins to wear down her aloofness; after a decade and a half spent steeping in a guilt-induced emotional hibernation, she begins to come alive once again. But this return to life and to reality is not without its price: stripped of her surest defense against the terrible crime she has committed, Juliette is forced to confront the demons of her past once again. Only this time, she is not alone; this time, her sister stands firmly beside her.

Claudel's film, inspired by the tragic stories he encountered during his years teaching in the prisons of Nancy, is extraordinary both for the quiet, unhurried way in which it tells its heartbreaking story and for the power and excellence of its performances. Refreshing in its understatement and subtlety, the film still manages to be both clear and direct, and the examination of its protagonist and her failings are gentle, despite the unsettling truths upon which it must dwell. It mood is slow and subdued, befitting Juliette's gradual rebirth, without losing sight of its destination.

Zylberstein and Thomas are spectacular. The obvious discomfort and awkwardness they share while struggling to reacquaint themselves is extraordinary not only for its accuracy but for its courageous lack of theatrics. Léa and Juliette feel like real people battling with real problems. The rest of the cast is equally spectacular—a collection of performances so excellent and so suited to Claudel's story that picking out Thomas and Zylberstein for particular mention seems almost unfair.

Yet the film is most extraordinary not for its mood or transcendent performances but for the vision of guilt, suffering, and redemption it offers to its audience.

Juliette's crippling guilt and her fear of confronting it are things all humans can understand. The recognition of one's failings and the self-accusation and self-condemnation it inspires, while necessary, are often profoundly painful. While our minds may understand the vital role guilt must play in any true transformation, our emotions are often far less willing to comply. It is small wonder that Juliette, living in a prison of her own devising, embraces her role as "The Absent One" rather that the pain and self-recrimination of her guilt.