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Inside TIFF 2013: English Man Candy and Sultry French Starlets

Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Léa Seydoux, and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

The Benedict has landed. This fall, leading man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch transitions from nerdy, cult unknown to a triple-crown “it boy”.

The British actor—so beloved he’s inspired a Cumberbatched meme among fans (basically adoration of his high, patrician cheekbones)—will be seen in three major films at the Toronto International Film Festival, including the opening-night gala screening of The Fifth Estate. Cumberbatch plays WikiLeaks’ quixotic founder, Julian Assange, opposite Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, and Stanley Tucci.

He also co-stars in another splashy gala, August: Osage County, this time with the likes of Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, and Julia Roberts. (We’ll have more insider gossip from that party this weekend.) Cumberbatch will walk the red carpet a third time for the world premiere of celebrated director Steve McQueen’s drama 12 Years a Slave, with just a few fine notables—Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

After rabid rooting and screams of unbridled lust from the guard-railed public, Cumberbatch escapes to Grey Goose Soho House Toronto, where he proceeds to plop down onto one of the private club’s velvet chesterfields. A Sherlock moment if we ever saw one. English actress Juno Temple pops over to chat up her former co-star, sharing conspiratorial winks and giggles next to the cozy fireplace.

At one point, he spontaneously drops a few dance moves with co-star Alicia Vikander, perhaps an homage to the plucky dance scene in The Fifth Estate, where Assange is labelled “an octopus” on the dance floor. His parochial moves were a delightful contrast to a fist-pumping Michael Fassbender, dressed monochromatically in a black sweater and jeans, surrounded by eight women by the bar, dancing to R. Kelly’s “Ignition”. Social surrealism at its best. He only paused from time to time to whisper in the ear of Colin Hanks, son of Tom Hanks. Future co-stars in the making?

Dan Stevens, who plays a deputy editor for The Guardian in the film, celebrated the premiere in fine spirits, patiently placating industry types trying to bait him for insider gossip on Downton Abbey. Looking rather rakish, Stevens dropped 30 pounds—or “three chins” he jokes—earlier this year for an upcoming role. To say he looked divine in his dapper blue suit would be an understatement.

At one point, Brühl crosses the room to greet McQueen. I’ve witnessed many an actor break from a group to beeline to McQueen over the years (they know where their future BAFTA and SAG Awards are coming from). Also in attendance: Paul Giamatti and Smallville lead Tom Welling.

Earlier in the evening, I drop into the stylish Disaronno affair to fete Blue is the Warmest Color at the Thompson Hotel Rooftop Lounge. The lesbian coming-of-age story was a critical darling at Cannes, but controversy follows hot on its heels to Toronto, as the two lead actresses recently told reporters that they were forced to engage in “horrible” humiliating acts by tyrannical director Abdellatif Kechiche. Raising the question of what a director can demand of actors in the name of art, as sordid production details emerge—Kechiche ordered Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux to spend 10 days, a majority of the time naked, shooting a sex scene that in the end, runs at 10 minutes in his film. Needless to say, this makes for an intriguing subtext to a premiere party for the film here in Toronto.

I notice that neither actress rose to greet the director that won them the Palme d’Or earlier this May, nor even looked his way. Perhaps it’s a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a spell of Stockholm syndrome—while the hedonistic glee of their sensational win drew them together in Cannes, things could not be chillier with this trio in Toronto. I later chat with Exarchopoulos about the raw, visceral nature of the film, and she muses, “We feel the love in Toronto, the emotions in the crowd are alive.” And with that she kisses her other lover in the film, the crazy delicious Jérémie Laheurte, with me standing inches from their luminous young faces in the swelling crowd. This episode of gallic insouciance is so unnervingly sexy, as I didn’t know they were dating. Ah, the effortlessly sensual French. Vive la liberté!

Watch this space this weekend for more from Si Si Penaloza at the Toronto International Film Festival.