La Binoche at the crossroads

The Oscar winner on men, awards, and working with Claire Denis

by Richard Mowe

Juliette Binoche (as she appears in Let The Sunshine In) on working with Claire Denis: " “I love to see her at work - she is like a painter. It was not always logical.”
Juliette Binoche (as she appears in Let The Sunshine In) on working with Claire Denis: " “I love to see her at work - she is like a painter. It was not always logical.” Photo: UniFrance

La Binoche, as she has become succinctly known over her career of more than three decades, feels that with two new films for Claire Denis she has come to the end of a chapter. So what now for Juliette Binoche?

Even Juliette Binoche is not entirely sure precisely where she is going. Sitting upright on an enveloping settee in the InterContinental Grand Hotel in Paris she has the immediate future all mapped out: an awards ceremony at the Ministry of Culture that evening in honour of her contribution to promoting French cinema.

Juliette Binoche on awards: “I feel blessed when I receive prizes. It is almost like being Cinderella and receiving something beyond your reach.”
Juliette Binoche on awards: “I feel blessed when I receive prizes. It is almost like being Cinderella and receiving something beyond your reach.” Photo: Richard Mowe

Binoche, 53, is less certain, however, of what awaits her over the horizon. Quizzed on how she manages to keep challenging herself she responds: “It feels to me I am finishing a cycle and I don’t know now where I am going. I have one more film to do but it feels like the end of something. You want to renew yourself which is what creation is all about.” Ever the enigmatic muse Binoche, in black leather jacket and delicately embroidered red silk Chinese blouse, continues: “I am sharing something with you I cannot even put words on yet, but it feels a bit of change is in the air. It is something I need to do, but I do not know exactly what it is.”

She recalled that just before she made Caché for Michael Haneke her desire to act left her. “It was a year and a half before it came back.”

Now she has completed two films in a row with director Claire Denis. In Let The Sunshine In she plays a middle-aged Parisian artist in search of love and romantic entanglements with a series of men, among them Xavier Beauvois and Nicolas Duvauchelle, with Gérard Depardieu pitching up late on as a lecherous psychic. She followed that in rapid succession with High Life (Denis’s English-language debut), an ambitious sci-fi drama about convicts who trade in their jail time by agreeing to crew a dangerous mission to a black hole. Binoche who remains discreetly tight-lipped about her role, appears with Robert Pattinson, André Benjamin and Mia Goth.

“I enjoy working with Claire,” Binoche beams. “I love to see her at work - she is like a painter. It was not always logical. Rather she would go at it in stages. It was very much moment to moment which I really like. Watching her work made me see the film develop through her eyes.”

The pair had never previously collaborated. Denis has explained her choice of La Binoche: “I knew I wanted to cast a sensual brunette. I’ve known Juliette for a long time and we both knew the role was right for her. She stuck so closely to the script it was amazing - even when she stammers in disbelief with half words, it was all in the dialogue I co-wrote with Christine Angot.”

Juliette Binoche at the Cannes Film Festival: "You have to concentrate so intensely in front of the camera which can feel like you are flying.”
Juliette Binoche at the Cannes Film Festival: "You have to concentrate so intensely in front of the camera which can feel like you are flying.” Photo: Richard Mowe

Binoche’s string of relationships in Let The Sunshine In (premiered last year in the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival) are almost as complicated as her personal life. She has had involvements with actors Mathieu Amalric and Daniel Day-Lewis (they met on The Unbearable Lightness Of Being) as well as director Léos Carax (who cast her memorably in Les Amants Du Point-Neuf). Her 24-year-old son Raphael was from an early love - professional scuba diver André Hallé - while 17-year-old daughter Hana’s father is actor Benoît Magimel. Binoche, who has never married, has also spent time with actor Olivier Martinez and Argentinian film producer Santiago Amigorena. Her current partner is American actor and musician Patrick Muldoon.

Describing her character in Let The Sunshine In she has said: “Isabelle’s life is a disaster. She’s fragile but that’s what makes her strong. She’s also daring, sexual and not afraid of her femininity. I think we’re all desperate to love.”

Binoche emphasises that she loves to be “in the present.” She adds: “That is why acting is such a perfect form. You have to concentrate so intensely in front of the camera which can feel like you are flying. It gives me a real high.”

Although Gérard Depardieu only makes a brief appearance at the end of the film - trying to sort out her character’s anxieties - the teaming served to finally lay to rest any lurking rumours of a rift between the two of them. When her film Certified Copy (by Abbas Kiarostami) was being released, Depardieu made an unprovoked attack on her acting abilities by saying that: “She has nothing - absolutely nothing. Compared with her, Isabelle Adjani is great even if she’s lost it recently. Or Fanny Ardant - she is magnificent, extremely impressive. But Binoche? What has she ever had going for her?”

Binoche, wounded at the time, found the attack inexplicable. They managed to make up three months later. “I saw him by chance in my local market. I went up to him and took him in my arms and said: ‘Why are you so mean to me. What have I done to you?’ and he replied “I am always doing some stupid things - don’t believe them.’ “ The first time she met Depardieu was on the set of the film he was making about Danton. “I was still at high school and a friend of my father’s had invited me to come and see the film. I was very excited. Gérard came up to me and was nice and friendly and open. I told him I wanted to be an actress and he gave me some good advice: to work on the classics. He was very generous so the outburst was all the more shocking. It’s all over now.”

Juliette Binoche on her character in Let The Sunshine In: "“Isabelle’s life is a disaster. She’s fragile but that’s what makes her strong.” (Photo Unifrance)
Juliette Binoche on her character in Let The Sunshine In: "“Isabelle’s life is a disaster. She’s fragile but that’s what makes her strong.” (Photo Unifrance) Photo: UniFrance

Her sheer range of roles obviously makes fresh pastures more difficult to find. In just the last few years she has been seen on stage in Antigone and Miss Julie; the live action adaptation of the comic book Ghost In The Shell with Scarlett Johansson; a brief foray in to the blockbuster world of Godzilla; Bruno Dumont’s period frolic Slack Bay, and the same director’s austere Camille Claudel, 1915.

She doesn’t spend much time watching herself on screen. “I try to see my films just once. It's like a dream you've been through when it's been intense, and you just have to go through it once more just to make sure you've had it. And, actually, I don't feel at ease because it's like looking at myself in a mirror with a lot of people watching. I think I'm better at looking at a mirror in a room when I'm alone. It takes me a while to allow myself to love myself.”

Binoche who encountered Harvey Weinstein as producer of The English Patient and Chocolat, recently weighed in to the #MeToo controversy with a letter to the French newspaper Le Monde. “We are not talking about the seduction that is happening naturally between men and women - it is about something else. It is about disrespect and it is also about the mentality and education that men have. Equally it can be about women’s attitudes too. It can happen to men and to women who have that power and exercise it over sexual relationships.”

When asked about the award she is about to receive as well as others (such as her Oscar for The English Patient and her nomination for Chocolat) and what they mean she says revealingly: “I feel blessed when I receive prizes. It is almost like being Cinderella and receiving something beyond your reach. I always wanted to be an actress and the fact of playing different characters in some ways saved me from my solitude at a certain point because you work with the imagination. You create worlds that do not exist. And you transform yourself and become something you are not, and that is incredibly exciting. A career tribute, however, is a bit intimidating - not that I think it is the end of my life or the end of my career, but it is more the feeling of how do I deal with it.” When she was watching the show reel of her films at the Ministry she became quite emotional.

Binoche, a Piscean and in her fifth decade, has no qualms about growing older. She suggests: “Actually I think ageing is a wonderful chance, because you have to let go of so much bullshit, especially in regard to this movie star thing. I believe that being an actress or being involved in a movie has to be a life experience, otherwise why go for it? I have to change myself, and I have to learn things. I have to push myself and my limits. By acting I find freedom.”

Let The Sunshine In screens at the Glasgow Film Festival, on 24 and 26 February.

UK release through Curzon Artificial Eye 20 April 2018.


Richard Mowe interviewed Juliette Binoche at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris.

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