Kristin Scott Thomas, photographed outside the Winter Garden during TIFF, says the French aren’t afraid of wrinkles.
I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG written and directed by Philippe Claudel, with Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill and Frédéric Pierrot. A Mongrel Media release. 117 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (November 7). For venues and times, see Movies.
It's a hectic morning at the Toronto Film Festival, and Kristin Scott Thomas is sitting in a quiet corner of the Intercontinental doing another interview.
Publicists and journalists are breathless and flustered, accommodating one schedule change after another, but the lovely, elegant star of The English Patient and Gosford Park seems utterly unruffled, sipping tea and thinking through her answers.
Scott Thomas's relaxed state contrasts with her bravura performance in her new film, I've Loved You So Long, which casts the Oscar-nominated actor - whose beauty is as sharply etched and distinctive as it was when she turned up in Four Weddings And A Funeral nearly a decade and a half ago - as an ex-convict struggling to reconnect with her estranged sister and re-enter the world after a very long absence.
Scott Thomas's brittle, stoic star turn has already placed her at the front of the pack in this year's Oscar chatter - and she could be the second consecutive winner for a French-language performance.
But it'll be a lot harder to get casual voters to appreciate the depth of feeling Scott Thomas works into Philippe Claudel's rather schematic family drama. The film turns on an essential contradiction in her character, who insists to everyone that she wants to be left alone while silently screaming for any kind of connection.
"Well, she's a human being," Scott Thomas says. "And that's where I think the film is successful, because you really do feel this woman beginning to unfold, beginning to let go of this massive weight, which is this secret that she's holding on to because she wants to hold on to it.
"It's difficult talking about roles like this, because I've got to talk about what we call in French ‘la cuisine.' It's basically the story that I told myself - not the story, but the way I managed to justify her silence. Not her actions, her silence."
Part of her cuisine - her kitchen, her tool kit - involved building her character's backstory. But Scott Thomas quickly discovered she wasn't sure how much research she'd be able to do.
"I spoke to Philippe about it," she recalls, "and told him, ‘I'm very afraid of going to prison. I'm frightened of my own emotion vis-à-vis somebody who's spent a long time in jail. I don't know whether I'd be frightened of them, I don't know whether I'd pity them, I don't know what I'd feel. I don't want my own garbage getting in there.'
"I wanted to just be brutal and honest. And he said, ‘Yeah, I don't think you should go.' He gave me a book he'd written, because he spent some time as a French teacher in prisons, giving lessons. And I read quite a few autobiographies and saw some documentaries and talked to some people who'd worked with people in prisons - psychiatrists and social workers."
I'm hesitant about broaching the key question of Scott Thomas's career. Why did she forsake English-language films - where she regularly co-starred with the likes of Robert Redford, Harrison Ford and Kevin Kline in prestige productions like The Horse Whisperer, Random Hearts and Life As A House - for French art-house projects? Surely there were more vehicles available for her in her native tongue?
"They always say that, but I'm still waiting," she laughs. "I'm very lucky to be able to work in French, because in France, though there's not necessarily wider scope - French cinema is about people, it's not about action; it can be very domestic - I have different opportunities.
"And another important factor is that French cinema embraces old women like me. They're not afraid of age or wrinkles or maturity. They like it. It's interesting."
Kristin Scott Thomas on the intensity of the film:
On the challenge of the performance:
On the processes of research and rehearsal: