Juliette Binoche on the Art of Being Directed

On Film / Interviews — May 21, 2018

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hether she’s pushing herself to new heights on stage and screen or nurturing her passions as a painter and poet, Juliette Binoche is as creatively voracious now as she’s ever been. Her combination of strength and disarming vulnerability as a performer has made her one of the most sought-after international stars over the past three decades. What’s less frequently discussed is her long history of cultivating relationships with great directors, including Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, and Abbas Kiarostami. From her surprising interpretations of her characters to her intimate involvement in developing a number of her projects, Binoche’s choices reveal the intelligence and curiosity of an artist controlling the arc of her own career.

Her most recent partnership is with the great French director Claire Denis, an acquaintance from her early years in the film business. In their first movie together, Let the Sunshine In, Binoche stars as a painter grappling with disillusionment as she desperately tries to find true love. Last month, she visited us while in town for the theatrical release of the film, and I was thrilled to discover that she is as candid and engaged in person as she is on-screen. As we talked, she moved seamlessly from exuberant laughter at on-set memories to emotional insights about the fears and desires that have shaped her creative life. With a new set of adventures already in front of her, Binoche shared with me how she continues to nourish herself as an artist and how her powers of persuasion have come into play in her relationships with directors.

Is there an experience that made you realize you wanted to be a performer?

There are two events that were pivotal for me in committing myself to this world of passion. The first was when I was fourteen and I saw the Peter Brook play Ubu aux Bouffes. I was in the audience, and at the end of the play we were all standing up and clapping and full of joy. And I thought, if I can give that joy to other people like I’m receiving it now, that’s what I want to do with my life. And then, when I was around seventeen and in school, I directed a play and did the set design. I was really passionate about that, and at the end of it I knew I was going to go into theater—that was crystal clear. I remember I told my mother and she said, “Well, it’s very difficult work,” and I said, “Yeah, that doesn’t matter to me.”

Not only have you worked with some of the best directors, you’ve also sought them out yourself. I’m curious what guides your desire to work with a particular director.

It’s the person first. I’ve worked with very different people so it would be difficult to generalize. Sometimes I’ve said yes to a director whose films I didn’t know very well and I ended up watching their films afterward or while we were shooting. But that wasn’t the case with [Michael] Haneke, for example—I watched all of his films before I met with him. He hadn’t done a film in French yet, so it was exciting to open that door.

What was it about Haneke’s films that made you want to be a part of them?

I saw the intelligence in his work—his dialogue, his visual awareness, and his way with editing. Each shot, one after the other—it’s like a writing process, it’s a language. Also, his favorite writers are Shakespeare and Chekhov!

As an actor and collaborator, how did you respond to the structure and control that Haneke likes to have over his films?

I love following someone. In doing so I can actually find my place, and that can also change the director’s perception and way of handling things. But I like to participate and to share—that’s my clay. You have to do things in a subtle way so that the director doesn’t feel imposed on. The creation is happening while you’re making it. But I do need to have this outside point of view [from the director], because it helps for me to let go and abandon myself and be inside my perception and sensation. I know when there’s another take that could go further. The most interesting directors will let you do that. They don’t try to hold onto the power because they know the power is not in their hands, it’s somewhere else.

Can you tell me about working with Krzysztof Kieślowski on Three Colors: Blue?

The costume designer they hired drew every single outfit to fit in a progression of colors throughout the film. It felt like it was coming from the head and not from the physicality, so I was a little worried. It was a week before shooting and we didn’t have the clothes yet. Finally, we decided to find someone else, and Kieślowski said something to me: “Don’t worry about the clothes, I’m just interested in your intimacy.” And the first day of shooting was the first scene you see in the film: me under the sheets with the camera very close, crying in bed. I thought, okay, intimacy, I get what he means.

But I don’t think Kieślowski knew that much about acting. And it didn’t matter. He knew when it was right, and he knew when he could go further. When there was a technical problem he’d do it again, but for acting he wouldn’t repeat. He would make me rehearse, like, five times and do one take afterward. He’d sometimes say, “Why isn’t it exactly like the rehearsal?” and I’d tell him that each take is something new, I’m discovering as I’m going, just as you do. We had a few laughs about it, but I was also disappointed sometimes that he wouldn’t understand that he had to trust me on that. 

But it was the subject matter that touched me so, because one of my friends had lost a child and a husband [like Binoche’s character in Blue]. What Kieślowski said to me, and I found it so interesting, was: “No tears. Never any tears.” I doubted that, especially when my character finds out the news about the deaths, but as we were going I began to understand. On the last take, the last shot of the film, I told him to let me do what I wanted. I said that I would like to smile. He said no, and I said let me try, and he said, “Okay, let’s try it.” So I did it and we kept the shot, and at the screening he said to me, “You were right.”

“You only relive things when they’re not lived fully in the moment.”

Are you able to leave your character on set at the end of the day?

It depends on the subject matter. There have been a few films that have been quite difficult for me to get out of, but most of the time I’m pretty good at taking off. When you’ve really given what you’re supposed to give, there’s no going back, and you don’t feel like you have to go back. You only relive things when they’re not lived fully in the moment. It’s like in life, in a love story, for example, when it didn’t really go where you wanted to go and it haunts you. I think acting is pretty much the same.

Some years back you performed in the touring dance theater performance in-i, with the choreographer Akram Khan. Dancing on a stage is such a big, whole-body expression, especially compared to on-screen performance, which is usually much subtler. I’m wondering if that experience affected your work as an actor?

It did affect me on multiple levels. Physical memory and emotional memory are very different. But I found it difficult to learn this physical memory from scratch. I had no dance training when I was a little girl or after. I always had a consciousness of my body but not through dancing, which is quite different. As an actor, yes, you have to go to your mark, but it comes with text and emotion. Each night it felt like I was going to die—how was I going to survive? That was my big question getting into it.

Then, step by step, you survive if you’re present. It’s so wonderful to express emotion through movement, and it was a really fantastic medium for me because I’m a mover. I did Certified Copy not long after that, and I remember having to go through things emotionally, and I felt at the end of one take that it was exactly like dance. I did this turn on the right, a turn on the left, and felt there was an interior movement I went through like a dancer. The two fed off each other and I was quite surprised how strong the experience was.

Tell me about the process of making the film.

Before we shot it, we did two weeks of rehearsals at the table. He actually shot that, and he said to me, “Maybe we could do the film like this.” He said to me, “It’s crazy because you’re sitting in front of this paper and going through all those emotions and we believe you.” He didn’t understand how it was possible that there were tears coming out of my eyes. He didn’t understand how what’s real and what’s false could blend together for an actor in the moment. And I said to him, “No, it’s real, but it’s transposed into the creative world.” He couldn’t figure it out. He was always a little suspicious of what was false and what was real.

But that’s perfect for the movie, of course.

Absolutely. There was one take during a crucial moment, when the male character is coming up to me at the bar and the bartender says, “Are you married? Are you a couple?” and he turns to me and says, “Are we married?” My character gets really upset and is like, “How come you don’t know?” and starts to have a tantrum and goes out of the café. When we’d rehearsed the scene it was all controlled, but in the moment of that take, I lost it. I was giggling and crying at the same time. After that, Abbas was very upset. He stood up and said, “We never said you were going to play it like that, you never played it like that in rehearsal.” I told him that it just came out like that and I couldn’t control it. We did a few more takes and he said that he would edit the scene at the end of the day and if it wasn’t good and didn’t fit into the film we would shoot it again tomorrow. But he said he actually thought it was fine.

Then at the end of the shoot, he invited me to see the film because he’d been editing it while we were making it. The scene was not in it! I said, “This is an exceptional moment. Why didn’t you put it in the film?” And he said, “No, it’s too much.” I said to him, “Show me the fucking scene! I want to see it!” He showed me the scene and I told him it was gorgeous and that he was crazy not to put it in the film. So he said to me, “Well, if you were directing, would you put it in?” and I said [laughing], “Of course I would put it in!” It was very funny. There were a lot of laughs and a lot of sharing.

I’ve thought about Certified Copy a lot while watching Let the Sunshine In. In that film, you give such a vulnerable performance that again allows you to move quickly between joy and despair. How did you begin working with Claire Denis on developing your character?

We didn’t talk that much about the character because it was already written, and also she knows me as an actor and I know her as a director. You let the magic happen while you’re shooting. My task is to know my text, my emotional world, to be available, and to adapt whatever is necessary. The thing Claire said to me was that Etta James was very important. So I listened to her all the time, because her love life was very unsteady, but she went back to love with lots of hope, and that’s what Isabelle is going through as well. Each time she is betting that it’s going to be all right, but love makes you vulnerable because you can be knocked out. But she has the courage to go in there no matter what. Courage comes with being vulnerable. And what is love? Is it our need to be fulfilled or not to feel the pain, or is it something else that’s going to take you? 

Binoche and Claire Denis

What was it like to finally work with Claire after having known each other for a long time?

Well, we met a long, long time ago, when Claire was working with Tarkovsky. She was doing the casting of The Sacrifice [which Binoche did not ultimately appear in]. Then she asked me to be in Chocolat, her first film, and at the time maybe I was busy doing something else, but I said no. After that she didn’t ask me to be in any of her films, but I knew that we were going to meet one day. When it’s the right time, it comes.

We got along so well because there’s something so unpredictable with her. She’s not trying to control anything, and yet she’s totally there, and when she’s choosing to shoot you, it’s like a portrait—she’ll see the light, she’ll see how your eyes are, your lips, your angles, everything. And that’s refreshing. There was a feeling of being special and precious in the moment and being seen. A lot of actors are there because they want to be seen and heard, and so suddenly when a director is really there to do it, there’s something that is lifting in you and is available.

Another director you’ve known for many years is Olivier Assayas, who cowrote Rendez-vous, the first film you starred in. Has your relationship with him changed over the years?

While making Rendez-vous I hardly knew him because he wouldn’t come to the set and I was oblivious to who was doing what. As a young actress you’re hardly aware of what’s going on, it’s too busy, and there’s so much to deal with as an actor already. But it was the same as with Claire: he offered me his first film and I said no, but then he came to me with Summer Hours. I love working with Olivier, and he’s found his cinematographic language. As a person, he’s quick in every sense. I’d even say he’s sort of nervous. But he has a way of listening that’s very interesting. He’s happy to change, and that’s what I’ve noticed throughout time with him lately.

With Clouds of Sils Maria, I had this idea of three women replacing each other, and I thought of Olivier. So I called him and I asked what he thought about this idea, and he said to let him think about it and he’ll come back and tell me if it’s something he could write, and he called me two weeks later. He made the story his own. 

When I interviewed him for Sils Maria, which is the first of his films where you play the lead, he said that because you’d worked with so many incredible directors, he wanted to make sure he was able to tailor a project for you in his own way.

Yeah, there’s an intimacy that is starting to breathe between us, which was not always easy. It’s difficult to be really with him, because he’s so nervous. But now it feels more like there’s a nice human exchange and a love of sharing the art form. That is helping a lot. It’s like Bruno Dumont: he tends to say we don’t get along in life but we get along on set. I don’t agree with him; he likes to make scenes. We definitely have different points of view in life, but on set there’s a genuine sensibility in working together.

It’s hard to explain how things happen because it’s not words that are going to direct you as an actor. For me, it’s about a way of being, a way of looking, a way of listening. It’s subtler but closer to life. It’s like with a child and a parent—you don’t break the child’s innocence, you don’t break the child’s spontaneity. An actor has to stay a child and stay fresh and real and alive and full of the ideas that are coming through them. Words can block you. If you work only on the mental side then the heart is being cut out. You want to have the whole body.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I’m always doing something, which I don’t always think is healthy. I’d like to be able to stop but I’m not good at that. Stopping for me would be reading. That’s a different way to nourish yourself. I just finished a film last Saturday. I want to sing, and I want to go back to painting.