The first film-maker to spot her potential was Louis Malle, but it was the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski who helped make her a star. Her swooning dual performance in his The Double Life of Veronique won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1991, and had critics falling over themselves in search of the right superlatives. The film traced the parallel lifelines of two identical young women, one Polish, one French, who sense a mysterious but never fully realised connection between each other. The idea is haunting enough, but it was Irene Jacob's luminous grace in the twin roles that made it take wing.
Fetchingly attired in a damsoncoloured sweater dress, the 28-year-old Jacob is on a lightning publicity tour for her latest film, Red. She is quick to play down her acclaim: 'Whatever you do in film,' she says in a slightly accented, musical voice, 'you don't do it alone. An actor is never as good or as bad as people think, you know, it depends so much on the script, on the director, on the cameraman, on the crew. With Veronique I was just part of this fantastic whole.'
'That's very modest of you.'
'Oh no,' she says, with something close to alarm. 'Not at all - I really know that to be true. Also, the film was a personal triumph for Kieslowski, being his first co-production. And I know that, OK, today it's completely banal to have co-productions, but five years ago it was not so easy for him as an Eastern European to come to France and make a film.'
Jacob herself left Geneva eight years ago (where she had lived since the age of two) to study acting at the prestigious Rue Blanche in Paris. While working in theatre she caught the eye of Louis Malle, for whom she made her film debut as a piano teacher in Au Revoir les Enfants (1988). 'What's easier in film is that you wake up and think: 'Oh God, I've got to do that scene today', but it lasts one afternoon, you know? You go with it and it's there. In theatre when you play Hamlet you have to suffer Hamlet's pain every night, but the response of the audience is right there, feeling along with you.'
And so to Red, the concluding film in Kieslowski's remarkable 'Three Colours' trilogy. In it Jacob plays a Geneva fashion model who one night accidentally runs down a dog, and takes the wounded animal to the address on its collar. The owner turns out to be a twisted old judge (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), who keeps boredom at bay by eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of his neighbours. The model is at first shocked by this behaviour, then touched by pity, and, against the odds, these two strangers in the night become fast friends - thus attesting the film's declared theme, fraternity. Or something like that. As I point out to Jacob, Kieslowski's films are more admired than understood in this country: 'It's strange, I've just come back from promoting Red in Japan, and I was amazed by the way they understand it.
I remember when we had a problem with the ending of Veronique - very few audiences could understand why I was touching the tree.'
'Yes, that was quite curious . . .'
'But the Japanese response was: 'Oh, we so liked the ending]' They have this respect for mystery and the unknown.'
It's no accident that Kieslowski's films set great interpretative challenges, for actors as well as audiences. 'The Double Life of Veronique was quite clear when you read the script,' Jacob says, 'but then when Krzysztof started editing . . . he always says that when a film has too much explanation, he cuts.'
'Does he offer any guidelines to you?'
'He never talks to us about the psychology of his characters, so sometimes I would have to ask him a question. He would say: 'OK, Irene, you have to do this and say this. It's difficult, but you'll do it because you're an actress.' What he likes about film is writing and editing; the process of shooting doesn't interest him so much. He does it very well, but he knows when he shoots how he will edit - the construction is very precise.'
At Cannes this year Red, hot favourite for the Palme d'Or, lost out to the somewhat flashier Pulp Fiction, though Jacob is nonchalant about the jury's decision. 'It's not very healthy to go to a festival thinking about awards.
The Cannes festival has already been a big help for Kieslowski - A Short Film about Killing got him discovered in France. The fact that Red was invited was enough. Somebody once asked Isaac Bashevis Singer who was his favourite reader, and he said 'children', because when they read a book they don't care what the New York Times might have said about it - they still want to read it. So we were a bit like that with Red - it didn't matter that it didn't win, because we all loved the film anyway.'
As for Kieslowski's claim that it will be his last film, Jacob remarks: 'This is what he says, and he's a person you usually take very seriously.'
No such valedictions for herself, though: she is due to plunge straight into an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Victory, directed by Bertolucci's screenwriter, Mark Peploe. The prospect of an English-speaking role doesn't faze her, and why should it after crash courses in Polish and Russian?
Whatever the language might be, Jacob's a cracker.
'Three Colours: Red' (15) opens in London, Edinburgh, York, Norwich and Oxford on 11 Nov; nationwide from 18 Nov.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content