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NOVEMBER 24, 2008

In the Still of a Life

I've Loved You So Long director Philippe Claudel explains how he approached his first film, his use of silence and light, and why the movie's ending actually is plausible.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: BOLT. Clicking on that title will take you to

Coming soon: an interview with A Christmas Tale director ARNAUD DESPLECHIN.

Before releasing his first film as director, I've Loved You So Long, Philippe Claudel made a name for himself as a novelist and screenwriter. Although grounded in details of Claudel's own life, the new movie tells an invented story of the relationship between two sisters: Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and the much older Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas), a former doctor who's just reappeared after 15 years. The film's title may seem cryptic to Americans, but on a recent promo visit to Washington, Claudel explained that it's a commonplace phrase in France.

It's from a very famous traditional song. If you are French, immediately when you when you hear this sentence, you think of this song. And you continue the sentence: "Never I forget you." For me, it was a perfect title, because it's a story about love between two sisters, and a story about memories. About the possibility of restoring a relationship between two people. The translation is not exactly the same. "I've Loved You So Long" is not the real sense. But I like the music of the sentence in English.

This is also a film about secrets.

Yes. It's the same with my novels. I like to compose a puzzle. It's like embroidery. The audience decides which is the most important topic. For me, the central thing is the importance of the others in Juliette's life. If there is a lesson in the movie, it's that we are nothing without the others. And the possibility of having a relationship after a very long separation. Maybe for a long period you are separated. When you meet again, it's very strange. We talk, we talk — we talk about what? The past, like a veteran of war.

I wanted to show that with the story of Juliette. To show with little details, the difficulty of being in the world after 15 years of prison. It's difficult to have a real place, it's difficult to speak again with others. It's difficult to open herself to love.

You have a number of autobiographical elements: The film is set in Nancy, where you live, and one character teaches in prison, as you did.

I'm 46 now. Between 1986 and 2000, I taught in prison. It was a very important experience in my private life, and in my artistic life. I discovered many things during this period. That it's not simple to know exactly who we are. The border between good and bad is very thin. It's very difficult to judge others. I discovered that people in prison are people like me. Maybe I ought to be in their place, and those people in my place.

I don't know exactly why the human experience comes into my writing process. I record all things. I like to do nothing in a place. In a train, a plane. I like to be totally immersed in the mood of the place, without thinking, without intelligence. I like to be a beast. I think my imagination is immoral. After a few weeks, a few months, a few years, there is a chemical process that translates experiences into screenplays and novels.

In this case, it's a mix of different elements of my personal life, and my vision of the world. But it's not an autobiographical story, except a little bit. I'm a simple guy. I'm not strange. I like to be with my family. When I have time, I like to go fishing and mountain climbing, to shop at the supermarket, to listen to music. If I took my life for an imagined story, it would be without interest.

I like to take the place of my characters. When I imagined Juliet, I become her. When I imagine a story about a very old men, I became the man. Tomorrow, if I imagine a story of a dog, I become this dog. It's a pleasure of the process. I like being in the world; it's not a frustration for me. But I need this other dimension, this other world.

Do you always know whether a story would work better as a novel or a screenplay?

Yes. It's very strange. I don't know exactly why, but when I start to write a new story, I know immediately. With I've Loved You So Long, I was sure it was just for the screen. It would be impossible for me to write a novel about this story. But I don't know why.

Maybe I have the desire to work with actresses. I was every excited to work with them. And to work with the light, to work with the set. The possibility to use each detail to translate something. I think I composed this movie like a painter. I tried to use a very simple style. Without affect, and without artificiality. I wanted just to show these characters. I wanted to be very close to them and record them. My goal was that the audience forget that there is a director.

You're also a painter?

I'm a very bad painter, but I like to paint still lifes, with passive details. I made series of paintings with a cell phone. Because it looks like, how do you say in English, a box where you put the body of the dead man?

A coffin?

Yes. [holds up phone] Look. It's the same shape. But I paint without talent. It's just for me.

But is there a connection between the way you paint and the way you compose images for film?

I think it's the same attitude, the same desire to use each physical detail — you know, in this movie the clothes are very important. I try to compose the palette with very sad clothes, with sleepy colors. Brown, gray, dark blue, gray-blue. Except for the two little girls, who have very colorful clothes. It's like a still life — the word is not the same in my language. In French, we say, nature morte. Dead nature. It's stronger. But "still life" is very sweet.

I wanted to compose with still life, and little by little, like in a [fairy] tale, the princess wakes up. I wanted to begin very dark, and little by little, to put in hope.

Were you influenced by silent cinema in making this film?

Yes. I like silent movies, because they express many things without words. I'm fascinated by the possibility to express things without words. I think it's a big challenge for actors. But I like wordy movies, too. I like Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose, Manhattan, and Sisters. Those are beautiful movies with many, many words. I like that, too.

So when in the dinner scene where there's the discussion of Eric Rohmer's films, which are very wordy, which side of the argument is yours?

It was just a joke. I like many Rohmer movies. Especially his older films. I wanted to show that these people, who are little bit provincial, are able to have a fine discussion about a novel or movie. It was important for me to show this universe. There are books everywhere. Grandpa has his books; Juliet too. Lea, her husband, the little girls. I wanted to show a life with books. Sure, we can live without books, but I think we live much better with books.

To enter the realm of plot spoilers, the film's ending is confusing. It's eventually revealed that Juliet has been imprisoned for 15 years for a mercy killing of a child with a fatal disease. No one, not even her sister, knows what happened. First, 15 years seems a harsh sentence, and second, why would no one know the details of the case?

This illness is a very rare one. I don't know the name in English, but it's called leukodystrophy. It's impossible to discover this illness without special blood analysis. And if there's an autopsy, it's impossible to discover the cause of death. So she chose to be mute.

If Juliet doesn't explain her act, it's impossible to know the truth. In the final scene between the two sisters, Lea asks why she couldn't tell her. And Juliet says, "For what? My son died." It's impossible to help.

Maybe a few centuries ago, she would have spent the rest of her life in a convent with a vow of silence. It's the same thing. It's a self-punishment. Fifteen years is a long penalty because in my country, when a doctor kills somebody, there's a harsher sentence. Because your job is to save, not to kill.

After I taught in prison, I worked in a special institute with children like the little boy in the movie. I was very impressed by this terrible situation. At the moment, I have another screenplay in mind, about this institute. I was very impressed by the brave people — patients, doctors, therapists — and I want to show that. Sometimes I try to be just a witness. I think it's important to be a witness.

I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG — 2008, 115 min; at the Avalon Theater, Shirlington 7, and Cinema Arts Theater.