I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) is the story of two sisters Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) and Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas). The film begins with Léa, the younger sister by fifteen years, picking Juliette up at the airport. We soon realize that the two sisters are almost complete strangers to each other. Juliette has just been released from prison after serving a long sentence. Léa was still a teenager when Juliette, a doctor, was convicted of the murder of her six-year-old son. Léa contacted Juliette when she was released and suggested that Juliette come to live with her. Juliette had no particular desire to see her sister again.
Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), Léa’s husband, is quite reserved—almost hostile—about Juliette’s presence under their roof. Luc and Léa have two adopted Vietnamese daughters, who are 8 and 3 years old. Luc’s father, Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud) also lives in the house. He’s a charming old man who spends all of his time reading since a stroke deprived him of the power of speech.
Life together isn’t easy to begin with. Juliette has to relearn certain basics. The world has moved on and she often seems confused. Although she may seem cold and distant, her attitude stems more from her being ill at ease. Helped by some, such as the kindly but tactless social worker and her open-hearted but depressed parole officer (Frédéric Pierrot) whose confidante she becomes, Juliette is also rejected by others, particularly employers who throw her out as soon as they find out what she did.
Léa’s attitude is ambiguous. She avoids talking about Juliette’s terrible crime and time in prison at all costs. She wants nothing to blunt the happiness of their reunion and getting to know each other again. Luc mentions it reproachfully, as does Juliette in a different way.
Gradually, the real Juliette emerges. She opens up to the world once more, thanks to her two nieces, with whom she becomes very close after being very stiff with them at the beginning, and Michel (Laurent Grevill), a friend of Léa’s, and Papy Paul, who, in a more symbolic way, knows what it’s like to be locked away. Juliette gets a job as a medical secretary at the local hospital on the condition that she never mentions she used to be a doctor. Her relationship with Léa becomes much stronger and more intimate. Even Luc succeeds in pushing his preconceptions to one side and seeing Juliette as his sister-in-law, not as a murderer.
Elsa Zylberstein (Léa) has appeared in numerous film, theater and television productions in her native France. She most recently appeared on screen in Jean-Marc Moutot’s “La Fabrique Des Sentiments” and “Mademoiselle Christine” for Raoul Ruiz, with whom she also worked on “Ce Jour La”, “Combat D’Amour” En Songe”, and “Le Temps Retrouve”. Previous film credits include Guillame Nicloux’s “Le Concile de Pierre”; Michel Leclerc’s “J’Invente Rien”; Karin Albou’s “La Petite Jerusalem”; Chantal Akerman’s “Demain on Demenage; Mathias Ledoux’s “Three Blind Mice”; Antoine de Caunes’ “Monsieur N”; “Feroce” directed by Gilles de Maistre; Annette Carducci’s “Not Afraid, Not Afraid”; JJ Zilbermann’s ‘L’homme est Une Femme”; Diane Bertrand’s “Un Samedi sur La Terre”; and James Ivory’s “Jefferson in Paris” among others. She won the Prix Michel Simon and was nominated for a Cesar for Most Promising Actress for her role in “Van Gogh” in 1992. She was also nominated for the Most Promising Actress Cesar for “Mina Tannebaum” in 1995, for which she won the Romy Schneider Award that year, and “Beau Fixe” in 1993.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you find out about this film and this role?
Elsa Zylberstein: Well, I knew the writer, not very well, but I knew his books. I was a huge admirer of his work. I got a chance to meet him through his publisher. One day we had coffee and I said, ‘Why don’t you write a movie?’ Then a couple of months later he sent me the script and wrote the part for me.
Bijan: Did you find the part to be very challenging? Because compared to the other characters in this story, this one, while on the surface seems perhaps easy, may actually be the most challenging one to play.
Elsa: Yea, it is not easy at all. It is the most challenging part because it has so many layers. Even when Kristen’s [Kristen Scott Thomas] character is coming back from jail, my character is going to jail. That’s why I always said that they are like two wild animals. My character is being led by guilt, redemption, and as soon as her sister is coming back to her life, everything is shaken. She was just dealing with lies, secrets, and was lying to herself. All of her secrets come back to her, and it makes this character very fragile and vulnerable.
Bijan: Léa also has fears, towards Juliette, and because she has kids.
Elsa: Yeah. She seems to be just depending on her sister for everything; everything in her life. She had a sister inside, she was part of her sister, and she feels fear. When Kristen’s character is coming back to her life, I am like a little girl at fifteen. She is my heroine, I hate her and love her, I don’t know what to think; she is a stranger and my best friend. All of those feelings are coming very quickly, and she has to deal with all this emotion and guilt.
Bijan: Léa is the only one in the film that goes through real changes. You start from one spot and at the end you change a lot.
Elsa: Yes. At first Léa tends to be happy and you think, oh this is a perfect life, she has a house and kids. And then you discover very quickly that it is not. She has various fragilities, she is nervous; she thinks she knows her sister but doesn’t. There are these different layers. And how do you create this reality between these two people on screen? How do you make it real? What is beautiful is when they connect on very casual things, like cooking, having tea. It is like she lost her memory, but everything is coming back. She has hidden everything for fifteen years.
Bijan: In one scene, Léa is speaking to students about Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and she undergoes some hysteria; you play this scene quite convincingly. This was a very difficult scene to play.
Elsa: Thank you. I love this scene because it shows that Léa is escaping life and she is not a happy person. She is too much into books, and books have led her life. She believed in the full reality of books. And now that her sister is back into her life she doesn’t believe in books anymore because life is now stronger. She becomes a heroine of life as well.
Bijan: Were you following the script exactly? Was there any improvisation?
Elsa: No, there was no improvisation. Of course, on set, there are always mysterious and magic moments that you bring with you. It is so important…the process of playing the part is part of yourself. As a human being, you bring everything you have. But everything for that scene was pre-written dialogue.
Bijan: Did you have many rehearsals? In the film, everything seems to be so natural and there is a great flow.
Elsa: We rehearsed with the camera in order to have some fluidity. But no, we did not have that many rehearsals. Kristen and I just met once for a slight reading, but he didn’t really want us to meet before. We were not intimate before the movie, and discovered each other during the movie.
Bijan: How was it to work with Philippe Claudel? How much did he direct you, and how much did he leave to your interpretation of the character?
Elsa: Directors really trust their actors as soon as they pick them. He knew exactly what he wanted, but trusted me and my intuitions. The scene in front of the doctor for example, he didn’t really imagine what I did. I was shaken and couldn’t even speak, and was about to burst into tears. He loved it and we kept it. At this point of the movie, she realized that all of her life has been wrong for fifteen years, so I imagined that she could faint.
Bijan: I have been told by actors that there are parts that only stay with them while they are performing, and there are also parts that are so complicated and demanding that it takes a part of your life over the period of the project. For you, was this role that demanding?
Elsa: For me it is obvious. You have to grow new wings. There is no other way to play a part for me. You are giving part of yourself. Of course, I know it is written and it is not my life at all, but I am using who I am to give my emotional feelings to the part, to connect to it. This is part of my work, to make people believe this is me. You are eating the part in a way.
Bijan: Léa is the kind of character that discovers things as the film progresses. Were you also discovering things as you were playing her?
Elsa: Even if you know what you want to do during the part, it is a surprise for your self as well. It is a mystery, because you imagine what you can do, but it has to be higher than what you thought. I want to go back to my room every night thinking ‘Wow! God, where did that come from?’ I want to be surprised by myself.
Bijan: You are so easy with the kids, and they are so easy with you. How did you work with the kids?
Elsa: I saw them a lot before playing the part, which was a key to get used to them. I visited them, we joked, spent some time together. I don’t have kids, not yet, so I had to get into that casually. We rehearsed the movement with the kids a lot. With kids what is great is that you have to play with them every moment. You don’t know what they are going to do, which is great.
Bijan: You have some background in theater. Did that help you in film acting at all?
Elsa: I began in movies, but I have done theater five times. Theater is very hard, but theater gave me more power.
Bijan: And it gives you continuation, which is very important.
Elsa: Yea, continuation on stage, exactly; and just some force, when you can play a part everyday for two hours on stage. Doing a scene in a movie for an hour and a half is not easier, but it is different. But you are more trained, I would say.
Bijan: A film critic who watched this film with me noted that the Juliette character, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, doesn’t mention what has happened with her kids, and keeps it to her self. What do you think about that?
Elsa: Well, you know in Europe, you are not allowed to kill anyone even if they are deathly sick. It talks about euthanasia, and how the law doesn’t allow you to even kill your kid even if they are sick.
Bijan: You mentioned that you didn’t have that many rehearsals prior to the shoot. How did you prepare for this role?
Elsa: I always do a lot of work before. I worked alone with the director. You have to be full on screen, and fulfill your role. You have to be full of things.
Bijan: Please tell us about your future projects, or any recent films you have been in.
Elsa: I did a sequel for a romantic comedy I did a couple of years ago. It is called “A Man is a Woman”. I did Raoul Ruiz’s new movie, which is just coming out.
Bijan: Do you have any temptations to direct a film?
Elsa: Maybe to write, because I am so happy with acting. I love to dive into other peoples’ universes.
Bijan: Have you attended any screenings of this film?
Elsa: No, I don’t like to watch myself. I have gone to premiers in France, and people were crying so much that they couldn’t speak at the end.