Museum Peace: Scott Thomas? character is framed by her efforts to keep cool.

When Juliette, the central character in Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, tells a blowhard party guest exactly why she hasn’t been around the past 15 years, nearly everybody at the dinner table cracks up. A few of her more intimate companions, however, sit horrified, knowing that the retort wasn’t a joke, even as Juliette herself (Kristin Scott Thomas) plays along. At this point in Claudel’s directorial debut, we too know the when and what of Juliette’s disappearance from society—she’s been in prison—but the why of her crime won’t be discussed until the film’s end. The Big Reveal is a doozy, wrenchingly acted by Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein, who plays Juliette’s younger sister, Léa. But I’ve Loved You So Long wouldn’t be much of a movie if its climax were more important than the nearly two hours of quieter drama that precedes it. The film begins with Juliette’s release from her physical prison, if not her mental one. Léa, whom their parents “brainwashed” to pretend Juliette didn’t exist, picks her up and invites her to live with her family until Juliette can get by on her own. But the women are veritable strangers, one meek and anxious and the other nerve-wrackingly reticent, so their reunion consists of mostly awkward small talk and deft side-stepping of the usual how’d-you-do questions that come up when someone’s new in town. Claudel, who also wrote the script, weaves a story that’s as intriguing for its MacGuffin as its portrayal of the battles an ex-con encounters when trying to get a job and make friends—particularly when the former prisoner is an aristocratic-looking European woman whose truth is more readily digested as a joke. It’s Scott Thomas’ chip-by-chip unraveling of her character, however, that’s most engrossing. Shot without makeup, her Juliette is both bare and masked, reportedly having been as silent during her trial about what she did as she is even now with the MacGuffin; Léa’s husband, in fact, can’t fathom how his wife didn’t immediately question Juliette about the crime and wonders what the hell they do in fact talk about. Meanwhile, Juliette tentatively smiles and chats, only occasional flashes of darkness belying her turmoil. Until, at least, the days wear on, the questions increase, and she can’t stand to keep inside what’s been haunting her all these years. The film’s last-chapter flood of confession and emotion is cathartic for the audience as well as the characters—even though, once everyone’s tears have dried, the revelation doesn’t entirely hold up to logic.