Claudel takes his time letting us know why Juliette was in jail, but as the terrible details unfold, we can see the reasons that Juliette - hunched, wary, silent, chain-smoking - is unwilling and unable to let people in. Set in a fittingly drab French provincial city, I've Loved You So Long is in essence a melodrama, but one of exacting emotional truth. The tears, when they come, are rivers.
Scott Thomas is probably best known to audiences for the frosty, stalwart Brits she has played in big dramas (The English Patient) and jaunty romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral). A longtime resident of Paris, Scott Thomas has pursued a parallel career in French cinema over the last decade. But nothing she has done, neither in English nor French, has the heft and haunting resonance of her portrayal here.
And although this is unquestionably her movie, Scott Thomas is not alone: Zylberstein, as the sister, grown up and teaching literature at a local college, brings a palpable sense of guilt and longing to the proceedings, and Laurent Grévill, as a friend and fellow professor who takes an interest in Juliette, seems to be the only soul who understands the agony she has endured. You find yourself rooting for him, hoping he can break through and grab hold of Juliette's soul.
This may be Claudel's first directing job, but he clearly understands how to draw characters, and how to draw us into their world. Full of rapt stillnesses and cool, controlled shots - all the better to capture Juliette's psychic and spiritual struggles - this is a picture of quiet observation, contained emotion, the hush before the cathartic scream.
Hopefully, there will be history made when the Oscar nominations roll around in early 2009: For the second year in a row (after Marion Cotillard's Academy Award-winning turn as Edith Piaf) a French-language film could garner a best-actress nod. Scott Thomas deserves it.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.