The Swiss actress Irène Jacob exercises a strange fascination on a certain breed of middle-aged male film critic. When her most famous work, Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Véronique (1991), was re-released earlier this spring, even normally hard-bitten reviewers struggled to conceal their crush on her. "Time has not weakened my worship," Anthony Lane said in The New Yorker. "The sheer, heart-stopping beauty of Irène Jacob is what shines out," rhapsodised The Guardian.
What adds to the air of mystery surrounding Jacob is how little she has done since The Double Life of Véronique. She went on to appear in another Kieslowski movie, Three Colours Red (1994), but although she has continued to work regularly, nothing has matched the intensity of those two early performances.
Geoff Andrew, programmer at London's National Film Theatre, suggests that we shouldn't be surprised that her career post-Kieslowski has seemed a little anticlimactic. "What you realise when you meet her is that Kieslowski was making those films around her," Andrew says. "She has this innocence. She gives an impression of goodness which is quite rare. It's also an impression of goodness that is not cloying. That's what gives those Kieslowski films their quality."
Kieslowski was the alchemist. In the hands of other directors, she has failed to shine in the same way. "She's a perfectly able actress but she is not remarkable," Andrew suggests. "We have this iconic impression of her from the two Kieslowski films and it is very hard to overcome those impressions."
When I speak to Jacob, almost our entire conversation is devoted to her films with Kieslowski. She is happy to talk in great detail about her work, but tells you next next to nothing about her own background or circumstances. "I'm not very comfortable with questions about my private life," she has said.
If she does reveal herself, she says it's behind "the protection of a character. It's the distance that creates the poetry." The irony, of course, is that both The Double Life Of Véronique and Three Colours Red expose her in a far more intimate way than any interview could.
Her biographical details are easy enough to unearth. Jacob was born in 1966 in Paris, the only daughter in a family of four children. Her mother was a psychologist and her father a doctor. She moved with her family to Geneva at an early age and stayed there till the mid-1980s, when she began her career.
It is 16 years now since the then unknown Jacob was called to audition for Kieslowski. Her lucky break came courtesy of Andie MacDowell, the American star Kieslowski had originally tried to cast in Véronqiue. MacDowell had already agreed to play the dual role of the two women whose lives are mysteriously linked, but there was a mix-up about contracts and she dropped out.
Jacob had left Geneva a few years before to pursue a career as an actress in France. Her one role of note had been in Louis Malle's wartime-set Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), which Kieslowski had admired. It is easy to understand why he was so quickly drawn to her. She was not only as photogenic as any model. She had a sensitivity and mournful quality which enraptured him. In Jacob, he had found his perfect muse.
Kieslowski was taking a radical step in Véronique, one that his colleagues in Poland initially regarded with grave suspicion. His work had been rooted in social and political life in Poland. With Véronique, he chose a different way - a psychological, metaphysical way - of dealing with contemporary life. The narrative hinges on coincidence - on the uncanny way two separate women's lives (one in Poland, one in France) seem to correspond. They never meet (the closest they come is when one spies the other from a bus) but their destinies are intertwined.
"The Double Life Of Véronique was about something that usually you can't film - intuitions, perceptions, all this inner landscape of sensation," the actress recalls.
Kieslowski had many, many documentaries in which he would focus intently on unmarried couples, surgeons, night porters or train passengers, as if the closer the camera came to its subjects, the greater the chance of revealing some transcendent truth. The problem, Jacob speculates, is that what most fascinated him in the documentaries were the most intimate moments - and there came a time when he felt uncomfortable filming them.
Kieslowski was making huge demands on Jacob. He didn't just want a performance. He wanted her this most reticent of actresses to open up her personality completely.
On the first day Jacob met Kieslowski, he set her a series of challenging tasks. She was asked to improvise around certain scenes in the script. He studied her with what she makes sound like an almost anthropological curiosity. "He would notice the smallest things - the way you swallowed, or licked your lips, or hummed, or frowned," Jacob recalls. He made her perform a strange test in which she pretended to read a book by someone she loved - "but it was a book about cigars!" He asked her to think about solitude and how she would behave on her own.
It was no accident that Kieslowski's late features, from Véronique onward, have women as protagonists. As he told the author Danusia Stok: "Women feel things more acutely, have more presentiments, greater sensitivity, greater intuition... Véronique couldn't have been made about a man."
But Kieslowski, she says, refused to discuss the underlying themes of the film with her. "That would have meant speaking about metaphysics and chance and doubles. He told me that because the film could be taken on such a poetic level we had to be very concrete. For him, metaphysics and chance was something always there in banal, everyday life - a piece of light, the rain," she recalls.
Véronique gave Jacob a Best Actress award in Cannes. She says she was startled by just how emotionally audiences seemed to identify with the story. "Krzysztof used to say that if we were very personal in the way we told the story, it would not be general and people would be able to take it personally. That's a strange paradox but it's quite true."
Having left Geneva to become an actress, she returned to her home city for her second film with Kieslowski, Red. She plays a fashion model who is thrown together with an elderly, Prospero-like judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in unlikely circumstances. (She rescues his dog from a car accident.) The judge is an embittered and slightly sleazy figure who spends his days eavesdropping on his neighbours' conversations.
Jacob portrays the Polish master as an intensely serious and hard-working film-maker, but with a sense of humour and affection for his colleagues. Kieslowski had affectionate nicknames for all his cast and crew. He called Jacob "little donkey or "little kangaroo". He was also open to suggestion from anyone in his crew. "His theory was that if you said to people that you already knew what the film was about, nobody would offer any suggestions."
Red was was Kieslowski's final film as a director. He died on 13 March 1996, two years after it was completed. Since then, Jacob has appeared in London's West End, in countless European art-house movies, US indie and Hollywood movies, even in British costume dramas. But Red and Véronique eclipse everything else.
'The Double Life Of Véronique' has just been released on DVD by Artificial Eye