I saw I’ve Loved You So Long at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, with a crowd of people weeping, cheering and on their feet. Director Philippe Claudel and leading lady Kristin Scott Thomas were kind enough to go over some of the finer points of their achievement with me in person recently, detailing how the film evolved from page to screen, and how their unlikely alchemy led the pair to discover and create one cohesive, intriguing vision.
“We’re in the luxury room, next door it’s very grim,” Scott Thomas deadpanned, before plopping onto a large green leather office chair with a sigh. The first thing you will notice about her in real life Oscar-nominated actress is that she has cheekbones so high and sharp that you could probably ski off of them. She’s also, arguably, this year’s hardest-working actress with no less than six recent or upcoming film appearances, not to mention eight strenuous shows a week in her Broadway debut in Anton Chekov’s The Seagull.
I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)
Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill, Lise Ségur
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 24 Oct 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 26 Sep 2008 (General release); 2008)
How, exactly, does she do all of this?
“It’s tough,” she said. “But I could not resist coming to Broadway with this production. It kind of got put off because there was a movie I had to make. And then people just keep coming up with all these ideas and they all know I can’t resist that and I’ll need to do it. I couldn’t resist doing Confessions of a Shopaholic. And then with Easy Virtue, they dragged me kicking and screaming onto that set. I did not want to do it, because I thought ‘I’ve really had it with country houses and dogs and that sort of thing’ and they made me do it and I had such fun. And I love, love, love doing this play.”
Despite a meta-human schedule, Scott Thomas is effortless and elegant in a neat little black dress and towering heels (“these shoes are really very comfortable, nobody believes me, but they are”, she teased). There’s no way to get around it: this is a beautiful woman. Scott Thomas is an actor with an unforgettable face, a woman possessed of an iron-cast work ethic, and a true movie star.
Some actors and performers are just like that, they just have a presence about them, exuding charisma with every glance, gesture or breath. They make you sit up straight when they enter the room and can render you speechless with a glance. They get the job done. Scott Thomas is one of these classic film stars. The ironic thing is, in her newest film I’ve Loved You So Long, the sharp directorial debut of author Philippe Claudel, her character Juliette barely looks like Kristin Scott Thomas, let alone a movie star.
Its one of those incredibly rare, delicately nuanced performances in which a well-known actor convincingly morphs into someone rather unassuming, someone you might see everyday. Scott Thomas does it without a fake nose, make-up or any other gimmicks. She uses her face. Her crystalline eyes become nebulously vacuous. Her poised carriage markedly droops, defeated and beaten down. She becomes another, unrecognizable woman completely, leaving no trace of artifice or performer – in a just world, this is the goal every actor aspires to, but few actually grasp the concept. Fewer still actually master their craft in the way Scott Thomas does here. Everyone is (rightfully) buzzing about her performance, but it is hardly the first time she has accomplished such a complete transformation.
Making her film acting debut in Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon, Scott Thomas is probably best known in the States for her glamorous, iconic turn as Katherine Clifton in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (and for the Best Actress Oscar nod she scored for her work there). Turning in an assortment of leading lady roles in high profile American films such as Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, Sydney Pollack’s Random Hearts, and Irwin Winkler’s Life as a House, the dexterous actress also scored bonus points by working double time in juicy character parts in modestly-budgeted European productions like Phillip Haas’ Angels and Insects, Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon, and Robert Altman’s masterpiece Gosford Park, or “heaven” as she called it.
“I’ve worked with some amazing directors. I’ve been so lucky with the kind of people I have been working with. It’s extraordinary. They’ve all been very, very different. Redford is an actor’s director. He loves giving acting direction and his acting direction is always so good. As is Roman Polanski’s acting direction. Listen to me, it sounds like I’m at a cocktail party. It’s fantastic to think about who I’ve worked with.”
Currently, Scott Thomas is testing her mettle as the flamboyant, haunted Madame Arkadina in Ian Rickson’s Royal Court production of The Seagull on Broadway (a show that definitely is a must-see before its 21 December finale). I was privileged enough to sit front row at the Walter Kerr Theater, seeing up close the kind of turn-on-a-dime mechanics that are a necessity in such a fearless acting performance, all happening only about three feet away from my face. Talk about a formative lesson in acting. “American audiences are fantastic. New York audiences are amazing. They’re so quick off the mark, they’re really attentive, they’re pleased to be there, they’re here to enjoy themselves, and it’s great,” she says.
Scott Thomas leads a troupe of performers (Peter Sarsgaard, Ann Dowd, Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, and The Office’s MacKenzie Crook among them) to glory in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation. The key, classic role of Arkadina, a past-her-prime actress who is terrified of aging is one that can, in the wrong hands, quickly turn into caricature, but the economical Scott Thomas hits the big notes when it is needed but wisely underplays moments that could have been over-wrought by disappearing into the character’s emotional minutiae. Arkadina is a role that requires the actress to traffic in extremes: one minute she is doing broad physical, comedic gestures, the next she is trembling and weeping over the destruction she causes.
On the big screen, most recently, she registered strongly opposite her Horse Whisperer co-star Scarlett Johannson and Natalie Portman in the period drama The Other Boleyn Girl, and then came a scene-stealing turn as a French lesbian in Guillame Canet’s hit Tell No One, but it is her second turn en Francaise this year, as Juliette in Claudel’s steady-handed drama, that is garnering her the kinds of mash-note reviews that generally point their lucky recipients towards an assortment of plaques, statuettes, and little gold men. “You get fed better. I love making French movies,” said the actress. “It’s usually smaller. In France you have small crews. It’s more egalitarian and there isn’t this kind of pyramid of power that you feel so much, especially on studio pictures.”
The starting point for Scott Thomas’ tour-de-force performance as the deeply wounded Juliette is, of course, Claudel’s tightly-wound script. The meticulously-constructed, ambiguous morality play Claudel pens dares to plumb the depths of a woman’s psyche in a deep, meaningful way that few modern films are able to; using tightly-wound stillness and mysterious little clues sprinkled throughout the film in pivotal moments. “The thing that kept me sane during that film was the fact that I had just bought an apartment that I gutted and I spent most of my time off the set screaming down the telephone at my architect,” she laughed.
Claudel, as a writer and a director, feeds us little bits of intrigue throughout, keeping the pace glacially brisk and the mise en scene crisp; he keeps the audience just hanging for any crumb of information. Riveting intimacy abounds as we become more and more privy to the hidden details of Juliette’s life. “I hope there will be a real connection between this movie and the audience,” Claudel said. “My biggest desire was to make a sincere movie. I wanted to work with a great sense of modesty, you know? If the audience feels that its not really a movie, but just a sincere work, the translation of human experience, the translation feelings, of hope, if the audience feels that on the screen, and if the audience understands that the story of Juliette, the relationship between Juliette and Lea and the picture of this familial universe, if the audience feels that whole thing, the translation of all of the pieces, I think it will be a good thing for me.”
Juliette is the kind of character study we almost never see in American dramas about women, most of which glaze over reality in a grotesque manor, sucking out all complexities and nuances in favor of the maudlin and the archetypal. For such an overtly dramatic piece, I’ve Loved You So Long also functions expertly as a suspenseful emotional mystery, and each clue that we are handed gives us one more insight into Juliette’s gloomy visage. This is information is given on a need-to-know basis: we first learn Juliette has demons that she cannot shake, then that she has done unspeakable things that have humbled and changed her, and finally, that she has, in every sense, had a completely different life up until the point we first meet her.
“I think that this woman was not afraid, she was afraid of nothing because there was nothing more to be afraid of,” said Scott Thomas. “I was playing with fear. Just to live with those feelings, even if it is just for a few seconds every hour. As an actor you have to go to places that are very, very uncomfortable and even places that are almost impossible to go to if you’re a mother. You just don’t want to think about it.”
Layered, delicate and disquietingly still, Juliette lands back into her sister Lea’s life after 15 years spent in prison for murder (she is played by Elsa Zylberstein, who matches Scott Thomas’ strength at each turn). What follows is a passion play in which the sisters try to find an antidote to the poisons that have soaked through their lives for years and contaminated everything. They have to find a way out together, they must find out if their wounded familial bonds are strong enough to hold the present together. These mysterious onscreen bonds, that have been shredded, anchor the film.
“It [bonding] happened all very naturally because in the story my character does not want to be there,” said the actress. “She doesn’t really care. She thought she was forgotten about. So, she has a very distant relationship with the character Elsa plays. Now, Elsa doesn’t have any sisters, so she has a very idealized picture of what it’s like to have a sister. I’ve got two, I know the realities. In fact what happened between us, really, on set, was that I was there all the time, slogging away, and she’d come in and do her thing and everybody would go ‘Ooh! Elsa, Elsa, Elsa’ and I’d, you know, sulk in my corner. So it came very, very naturally. The extraordinary thing that I just think is brilliant casting and brilliant filming is how they managed to get us to look alike. Because we really don’t look anything at all alike in real life.”
Desperate, though far from feckless, the women are modern enough, smart enough and strong enough to figure out the short hand with which to communicate and move forward. “Lea is trying desperately to get love from her sister,” said Scott Thomas. “That her sister will allow her to love her.” Anyone who has ever had a tenuous, fragile relationship with someone close to them, and has made the choice to keep loving them no matter what they’ve done, will be able to not only identify with Juliette and Lea’s complicated, meaning-filled relationship, but will also be able to glean a deeper insight into the process of forgiveness. Anyone who has ever done something unthinkable, albeit for a righteous reason, will no doubt be able to empathize with the multifaceted character of Juliette.
Scott Thomas, essentially, must play three women, or three versions of the same woman. There is the Juliette from the past, who is talked about in the present: a fluttering ghost who committed an unspeakable crime for which she was imprisoned for 15 years. Then there is a woman who was hardened in prison, and finally, the woman who emerges from tragedy and is left to her own devices to figure out who she is now.
If the natural dramatic urge would be to play a character like this as larger than life, with an arsenal or actorly tricks and mannerisms, Scott Thomas has wisely suppressed it, coming across like a natural, modern day Ingrid Thulin. She has such control over her emotions, such control over her features that it feels as though, in the opening scenes, Juliette will be in a permanent state of shock. Her eyes seem hollow and reflect nothing. Claudel said he wanted her to look “dead” in the first scenes. It makes Juliette’s few moments of explosive expressiveness positively chilling and unexpected.
I’ve Loved You So Long is about absolution and empathy, even when you don’t know the other person anymore. It’s about the excruciatingly personal process of closure after a severe emotional trauma. But most importantly, it’s a film about, according to Claudel, “the strength of women”: women in extraordinary circumstances who find it within themselves to find the strength to face the day in the aftermath of the worst type of tragedy. It isn’t often that such rich, nuanced female characters make it to the big screen, but this is a kind of film, and performance, that comes along once in a lifetime. Academy voters should take notice of Claudel and Scott Thomas’ honeyed duet, and hopefully spur ticket-buying audiences to follow suit.
Admittedly, there is a slight possibility that this might not play well outside of a particular niche of film enthusiasts who will likely initially seek this out in the theater – there will be some of the usual, ignorant stigmas about foreign-language films being not as worthy as the big American prestige releases this season, or about it being an arty European chick flick. The kicker is that while I’ve Loved You So Long does happen to contain the best female performance of the year, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in or whether or not the energy is masculine or feminine onscreen: the raw current of emotion and nerves bristling underneath are wholly universal and organic. In such a disappointing, unmoving year for film overall, I’ve Loved You So Long is essential, and Scott Thomas is the performer of the year.