I suppose Irene Jacob will always be inextricably linked with Krzysztof Kieslowski, and the two masterpieces she made with him: The Double Life Of Veronique (for which she won the best actress award at Cannes), and Three Colours: Red, which made her name. I am convinced had Kieslowski lived on, he and Jacob would have made many more films together; the aesthetics of Jacob’s acting and Kieslowski’s cinema are utterly compatible, both marked by an unpretentious poetry and a sensitivity – no other actor is as seemless in Kieslowski’s films as Jacob, infact, the BFI’s Geoff Andrew wrote that Kieslowski was “making those films around her”. However, it could be said that Jacob has never quite reached the heights of those films with Kieslowski since. After Red, the offers poured in, from Europe and Hollywood*, but Jacob instead retreated and took nine months off, spending most of her time “reading Tolstoy, Balzac, Singer and several autobiographies”.She worked with Louis Malle before Kieslowski, and Antonioni after, and latterly delivered a masterpiece of screen acting in Theo Angelopoulos’ The Dust Of Time.
What is unusual about Jacob on screen, is her shyness. She is never aggressive, or flamboyant, and hardly makes any attempt at intensity, even though her performances are vivid. There is a gentleness about Jacob, with a hint of melancholy. However, there is always joy in her performance, it is the energy source for all her work, and it may be re-shaped in all kinds of ways, such as sadness or confusion, depending on the needs of the moment in the scene. Jacob’s performances flow from her, which sometimes gives her an ecstatic quality. Her performances are unfettered, and unmolested by vanity. There is a sensitivity and delicacy about her which can at times be heartbreaking. Her acting has the absolute ring of truth to it. As with all great actors, it is her essential goodness we respond to. Further, we also sense that her performances are coming from a deep place, they are important to her. Although she is physically small, she has a magnitude of soul, as though there is so much more to be explored, as though we are only seeing a fraction of what she may express.
Jacob, by her own admission, came from a “shy” family, who rarely if ever expressed their feelings. As a result, through much of her childhood, she will have repressed much of what she felt, locking it away somewhere. Then she discovers cinema:
“They made me laugh and cry, and that was exactly what I was waiting for in a film: to awaken me to my feelings”.
Suddenly those repressed feelings are stirred, and the possibility of being an actor, offers the possibility of an escape from introversion, albeit temporarily and under imaginary circumstances (ie – for the duration of the performance), and the possibility of giving expression to that repressed material. Here’s Jacob again: –
“…the protection of a character….it’s the distance that creates the poetry”.
The protection of a character is an interesting point – there is no character, everything the actor expresses is of himself, not of anybody else. In Jacob’s case, an introvert, the objectivity of playing a character, creates a vehicle to transport the repressed material out into the world. However, she is such a captivating actor because there is a tension between her inclination for introversion and the demands of the scene (her performance). The poetry is the repressed material touched off by the actor’s response to the scene, and reconfigured as truthful fiction by the actor’s performance.
Jacob (as with all true actors), possesses a surfeit of thought and feeling brought about by shyness, and from this surfeit, Jacob creates her poetry.
* she was offered the lead role in Indecent Proposal but turned it down because she “didn’t feel comfortable with the film’s sensibility”.