Kristin Scott Thomas faced a more complicated challenge with "I've Loved You So Long." She had to be nothing.
Scott Thomas was cast in the French drama as a woman trying to vanish emotionally, someone who wants to be left alone, a person who appears to have given up hope.
"It's not that she doesn't want anything to happen," Scott Thomas explains. "It's that she doesn't care what happens. I don't think she is depressed. She is just waiting for the bus to run her over -- and she's not going to do anything about it."
The irony is that in taking on such an inward-looking part, Scott Thomas has brought as much notice to her acting as anything she has done since 1996's "The English Patient," for which she was nominated for the lead actress Oscar.
"I've Loved You So Long" caps a remarkable year for the 48-year-old actress, who was born in England but now lives in France and speaks the local language fluently.
This spring, audiences made the French thriller " Tell No One" (in which Scott Thomas costars) one of the year's most popular art-house hits. In October, Scott Thomas reprised her leading role as the vain actress Arkadina in New York's restaging of the London production of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," among the best-reviewed productions of the Broadway season.
And now comes "I've Loved You So Long," the debut directorial effort from screenwriter and novelist Philippe Claudel.
In it, Scott Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, who has just been released from prison after serving 15 years for a crime that is neither openly discussed nor immediately disclosed. After her discharge, Juliette moves in with her sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), who proves far more accommodating than Léa's fearful husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius).
No matter how elegant Scott Thomas may appear in person or on stage, in this movie she is miles from movie-star pretty. Her demeanor, like her hair and her clothes, is lifeless, flat. It's not that she's unsympathetic; rather, she's almost inert.
It's the kind of part that, like a final dive in the Olympics, carries a high degree of difficulty: Nail it, and you've made a nearly seamless splash, but if you're off by just 10%, it turns into an embarrassing belly-flop. Given that the film was Claudel's directorial debut, the chances for a miss were all the higher, and Scott Thomas says "there was a lot of friction on the set" in part because of his inexperience.
What's more, if the audience detects that Scott Thomas doesn't fully believe in the character, the whole thing could unravel in a maudlin mess.
"I was terrified of that," Scott Thomas says. "If there was one thing that I am terrified of, it's sentimentality. And I really didn't want people to see an actress forgiving a character, saying, 'I am going to show you this person but I am actually really nice.' I wanted it to be raw."
In discussing the role with Claudel before and during production, Scott Thomas suggested that Juliette didn't need to talk as much as the script ordained. In an act that few actors would endorse, she asked that her dialogue be cut. "I said, 'Why am I saying it? Why can't I just do it? Let me sit there for a minute and we'll see if it works."
It is indeed those awkward, painful, silent moments that critics have singled out as setting the film apart.
Largely because of her personal choices but partially because movie studios would rather cast familiar names than talented actors, Scott Thomas has largely disappeared from the U.S. film scene. She has a small part in next year's "Confessions of a Shopaholic," but almost everything she does these days is in the theater or smaller, usually French-language, European films, including the upcoming "Largo Winch" and "Brontë."
"I don't get offered big parts in big movies," Scott Thomas says without any apparent regret. "I can do interesting work at home and not be away for months, and not have to make so many artistic compromises. . . . It is fantastic to be able to do French films, where I am allowed to do things that I am not allowed to do anywhere else."
Horn is a Times staff writer.