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Jewel of a performer acts with fire, facets

The Baltimore Sun

French director Philippe Claudel describes Kristin Scott Thomas as "a diamond" - not because she glitters, but because "she has so many facets." Claudel, a French novelist turned filmmaker, has made a phenomenal debut film called I've Loved You So Long. It's a tale of two sisters, Juliette and Lea, who experience an emotionally fraught reunion when Juliette emerges from prison after serving 15 years for some unnamed, presumably horrid crime.

The film, which opens Friday at the Charles, moves with a born storyteller's assurance, yet Claudel acknowledges that it might never have been the harrowing, moving thing it is without the collaboration of his star, Kristin Scott Thomas. "Kristin's many faces," Claudel says, enabled him to wring empathy and suspense from his antiheroine's crucial characteristic: her "unpredictable complexity."

I've Loved You So Long arrives here as the culmination of an amazing triple play for Scott Thomas. Earlier this year, another French film, Tell No One, became the summer's most successful foreign-language film; this twisty and perceptive thriller featured Scott Thomas in a tart, showy role as the lover of the hero's sister. More recently, she won acclaim for her performance as Arkadina, the alluring, destructive actress at the center of Chekhov's The Seagull, in the 2007 Royal Court production that moved to Broadway in October.

It's a stunning stretch of work for an actor who has been upending expectations since she appeared in Prince's Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and, for many of us, stole Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) with her trenchant delivery of droll lines such as "I was a lesbian once at school, but only for about 15 minutes."

On a Monday off from The Seagull, Scott Thomas says she's particularly pleased at the back-to-back success of the two French films, because it has proved to her American and English fans that she has quite an active career across the English Channel. Scott Thomas became the epitome of ravaged British beauty in The English Patient, but she has lived since age 19 in Paris, where she went to work as an au pair and was first accepted into acting school.

The French have been a blessing for Scott Thomas, whose American directors have sometimes overdosed on her potential for haughty glamour in movies as different as The Horse Whisperer (1998) and Random Hearts (1999). She's made her share of daft British comedies and scored coups in bloated costume dramas like this year's The Other Boleyn Girl. But French filmmakers treat her with a lighter, defter touch, even in the extreme I've Loved You So Long. What makes her performance in it thrilling is the way she makes you sense volatile emotion and humor coursing beneath an inscrutable surface.

Scott Thomas relishes the differences between film and stage acting. She says they involve "very different ways of communicating feeling." Making a film, she believes her job is "to provide the director with raw material and be as honest as possible in a portrayal and to search for things perhaps very close to my own emotions, and give him or her a palette of different takes, different variations of the same thing, and he makes the film by choosing which ones he wants and putting them together."

She says that in a film she may have "less control - you have to pretend the camera isn't there and allow it to steal things from you." But she also has more "flexibility" on a film, because "you are allowed and even expected to deliver a variety of ways to say a line or receive a piece of information." And the physicality of the character has to be more delicate.

"In the theater, you have to be far more communicative and transitive about what you're going after. It has to be more concentrated and direct; it requires more volume and precision. What you do must be easily recognizable and legible and written quite large for an audience quite far away."

Yet, she feels she's done her best performances on film when hopping onto a soundstage from the boards. "Working on stage really does get you agile as an actor, because you have to react in a split-second when an actor tosses you a ball with a different curve on it, or some audiences don't react in the way you expect." Ian Rickson, the director of The Seagull, told her the trick to success on the stage was "allow the audience in and then boss them about. You can't do that when acting in a film!"

The Seagull and I've Loved You So Long are opposite in other ways too. Scott Thomas identifies with Arkadina. "I believe her when she says in the play, 'I'm just an ordinary woman,' even though she's done this big number on everybody. She is vulnerable. She's not a very good mother, but that's because she hasn't really detached from her son and still believes that he will turn out fantastic, and he keeps disappointing her. I feel sorry for her, actually." (Scott Thomas herself has three children.) Yet, critics who've thrown their hats into the air about her Arkadina, such as The New Yorker's John Lahr, have deemed it a nonpareil portrayal of a narcissistic monster.

"I know," she says with rueful humor. "But even monsters have people who feel sorry for them."

Has Juliette been a monster, too? That's what drives the tension of I've Loved You So Long. She appears to be quite the catch to single, mature men in the college town of Nancy, because they don't know her tragic secret. Only her sister Lea (the equally astonishing Elsa Zylberstein), who is anxious to re-establish sorority, and Lea's husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), who wants to keep Juliette at a distance, know why she spent a decade and a half in prison. Juliette is so intent on keeping her motivations private that she doesn't make it easy for them to accept her.

The cozy French college-town setting adds freshness and urgency to the mix. Everyone in Lea's circle wants to know her mysterious sister better. (Scott Thomas understands why Claudel prefers Nancy to Paris because of the "snobbish and pretentious" aspects of the City of Light. She herself lives "a mundane life in Paris; my children go to school there, and I enjoy coming back after I leave the country to go to work." )

Claudel says the key to generating a quietly electric atmosphere in a setting like Nancy was simply "modesty." He worked to reign in emotion, not ignite it. He wanted audiences to tear up for his characters rather than see them crying for themselves. Scott Thomas agrees. She says, "There was more dialogue for her written in the beginning, and we erased it as we went on. She started as a silent character and we made her even more silent."

Although Claudel drew on his own experience as a prison teacher - and a literary academic in Nancy, just like Lea - Scott Thomas relied on her imagination. "I had read quite a bit about people spending time inside prison and getting out: how difficult is it to come to terms with being allowed down the street and not having to stop at any point and being able to go through as many doors as you like. Freedom is such an extraordinary thing."

Preserving her intuitive reaction to the material was more helpful to the movie than it would have been for her to interview or hang out with female prison inmates. She was afraid of diminishing them by "feeling sorry for them." She also feared that "because it would only be for a few hours it would force me to make snap judgments" - she would feel as if she were betraying them, because her performance "would never be up to scratch. At some point you put your foot down and say 'This is only a fiction.' You have to be able to invent. So I just imagined it. I know what it is to feel lonely and alienated. I know what it is to feel fear. We all do. My job is to focus and magnify that. I can't say it was 'fun,' like Tell No One. But it's really stirring stuff."

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