I’ve Loved You So Long: Interviews with Kristin Scott Thomas and Philippe Claudel

2008-10-24 (Limited release)

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.

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.

Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel writes novels, short stories, and screenplays; his most well-known writing is Grey Souls which won him the prestigious Renaudot award in France. He is also a professor of literature at the University of Nancy (in Alsace-Lorraine), a painter, a first-time feature film director, a father and husband, and a rabid movie buff. Fiercely intelligent and coming from the background of an academic, the thoughtful Claudel knows all of these pet subjects inside and out and has incorporated bits and pieces from each diverse, busy area of life into his highly personal directorial debut I’ve Loved You So Long. Come Oscar nominations morning, in a just world, he should be able to also add “Academy Award Nominee” to his resume.

On the eve of the film’s limited release in New York City (it will expand gradually in the coming weeks), Mssr. Claudel was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss his interest in being pushed outside of his comfort zones as a writer, the challenges and rewards of helming a French indie, and how the women who have surrounded him his entire life proved to be, along with an unlikely pair of Australian superstars, the best inspiration for this particular kind of daring, modern feminist parable. “I’ve Loved You So Long is a film about the strength of women,” Claudel has said. “Their capacity to shine forth, reconstruct themselves and be reborn.”

Author: Philippe Claudel
Book: Grey Souls
US publication date: 2006-04
Publisher: Gardners
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780753820612
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/c/claudel-greysouls.jpg

“I think my most important surprise during this adventure, there were two surprises: I was surprised to observe an amazing talent – Kristin Scott Thomas’ talent,” said Claudel. “It’s a very big chance to have every day the opportunity to observe the actress doing this work. She’s very demanding, and I am very demanding too. I think we had, for this reason, and other reasons, a very good understanding and very good connection. It was a great opportunity for me to have Kristin make this movie and play this part of Juliette. And the other surprise was the final cut of the movie is exactly what I imagined at the beginning.”

With a meticulous eye for intimate drama in the everyday that immediately conjures up the close-up filled, emotionally turbulent world of Ingmar Bergman’s ’70s canon, Claudel’s refreshingly assured debut is indeed more than promising: it seems a full-out guarantee that his cinematic voice will resonate again in the future. And if he has his way, it will be with Naomi Watts.

I don’t think you get to see as many good movies about a woman’s experience, in general. What made you want to center this work around women, specifically?

Immediately I chose the medium of ‘movie’ because I wanted to work with actresses, I wanted to work with technicians, I wanted to express something with the light, with the color of the wall, with the dresses, you know? I wanted to really explore the female universe. I wanted to change because in my novels, constantly, I explore a male universe, and I like that, and it’s a natural position for me when I start to write.

Every type of moment with male characters, there are female characters, too, but in the background. When I started to have this idea for the screenplay, it was a familiar thing, a desire to a story about women. Yes, I wanted to explore the female relationship. I am constantly, since my childhood, fascinated by the woman’s universe. I grew up with women – mom, sisters, aunts and grandmother. I am married. I have a daughter, she’s ten. In my work, as a writer, I am constantly with women at my publishing house, and I like that. I like this feeling, this connection I have with women.

I am very fascinated by their ability to stay, to have strength, to be able to have rebirth after tragic events. I’m not sure we have this strength. I know different women who lost their husbands, and after this death, she continues. When a man loses a wife, he becomes like a little child, he is totally lost, and he is totally depressed. Many times, after six months or a year, these men get married again. It’s strange.

How do you think men will respond to the film’s subject matter in comparison to women?

I was very surprised in France, by the reaction of the men. Because when I finished my editing, I knew that the movie had a very high potential for emotion and I saw around me, with different “test” people – I invited friends of mine, I was always in the theater, observing their reactions. I saw the tears.

But I was very surprised by the reaction of the men because they cried too, and many, many men have told me that it was a really raw experience for them to be intensely moved by a movie. I remember in France, my producer made a trailer of just reactions of people in the audience, and it was a good idea. We saw men for whom it was impossible to speak; they were totally destroyed by the emotion when it was over.

I’d like to hear more about the rehearsal period with Kristin and Elsa.

We met for two readings, Kristin and I. In one reading, there was Elsa with us. It was very important for me to show different ways, different lines, and different notes. I prefer to give freedom for these actresses to explore themselves this way. If they found a great thing for my movie, and if, during the shooting, for example, Kristin, she expressed what I felt, what I wanted, I was totally happy.

And if it was not the case, at the moment, I tried to direct in other ways. It was important to, every evening, to have in my camera a movie that I wanted. I was ready for that. I was ready to kill for that. That’s a metaphor, but…(waves his hands). So, it was a very great ambiance during most of the shooting, but sometimes it was a little electric. We had two, three, or four fights, Kristin and I. I told her during this fight: this is my movie, ok? She’s a wonderful actress but it’s very important for the director to not give the power and sometimes actresses try to test you! Especially Kristin!

So, it’s normal, but at the same time, it’s important to tell ‘it’s my movie, you’re in my movie.’ You are wonderful, but without you there is no part, but without the part, there’s no actress.

What are some of the films you admire? Directors? Performances?

There are many, many people. For this movie, in the background, there is a big shadow of a French director, Claude Sautet. I’m not sure he is very famous here; he is a very important director for France. I like his exploration. I like his work because he constantly explored intimate stories but at the same time with his story he gave a portrait of our society. I like Nanni Moretti. I like the work of Alejandro Amenabar.

I totally enjoyed the last movie from Bent Hamer’s O’ Horten, I saw it in Telluride and after in Toronto, he’s a director from Norway and its very surrealist. I like the work of Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu, especially with 21 Grams, I think it’s a masterpiece. I’m a big fan of all the movies of Woody Allen. Manhattan is a masterpiece and Broadway Danny Rose is wonderful. [Stanley] Kubrick, [Ernst] Lubitsch, [Frank] Capra.

Sounds like you’re just a big fan of films in general

(laughing)Yes! Yes! That too! I remember, I don’t know why exactly, an American movie without success in France, a very small audience saw this movie, The Assassination of Richard Nixon with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, like in 21 Grams. Very great screenplay. Very great performances by Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. I fell in love with Naomi Watts.

One day I hope to work with her because she is a very inspiring person. When I saw her performances in Mulholland Drive and 21 Grams and in this movie, and in other movies, I liked the perpetual challenges she chose. I like to work with different faces in my mind. I remember four years ago thinking about Nicole Kidman was very inspiring for me. And the result is not a screenplay with the possibility to have this actress [acting in the film], it was a very strange alchemy, you know?

And I like to imagine this woman in different parts in my mind. And later, with this intimate material, I write different short stories or a character in a novel. When I remember for myself, my opinion, the most famous, amazing performance of this actress is in Eyes Wide Shut, especially in the wonderful, dramatic scene in the bathroom, when she explained the beginning of this dream love affair. And she’s beautiful. It’s very precise playing, and so, it’s because on the stage there was a generous director like Kubrick.

So, you can be inspired by certain actors but not necessarily want to write a part specifically for them?

Yes. It’s like a translation. A translation of mood. But I hope one day, if in my mind, I start to write with the face and the feeling of Naomi Watts then I hope, maybe, we will come together and work.

I like the meeting. I like the connection. I like the idea we are in a big world and there are two people, and one day maybe these two people can have a connection through work.

I’ve Loved You So Long – Trailer