Juliette’s Freedom

A few years ago, Juliette said in an interview that she was building her filmography in disorder. This stayed with me for several reasons, firstly because it demonstrates a deep and intimate understanding of the way in which life and art are inseparably joined according to a more complex, richer, and probably truer history than that of the conventional points of reference found in the history of art and, even more so, of film. There was also her way of finding simple, clear words to express an idea that has existed as one of the driving forces of my own practice from the beginning: I am not a film director, but a person who makes films, like Juliette is not an actress, but an artist who acts in films.

Lastly, this intuition on her part evoked the very essence of our relationship. I’ve often told the story of how we met—it was only later that we became true collaborators—when André Téchiné chose her to play Nina in Rendez-vous, which I wrote with him. A few months later, the film was finished and we were both at Cannes. Rendez-vous was in competition and I was there doing a precarious balancing act for the last time, as both a screenwriter and a contributor to the film magazine I would soon leave. Under my arm, the screenplay of what would become my first feature, Désordre.

It had seemed obvious to me to offer Juliette the female lead in this story of young men. The character’s name was Anne. I don’t know whether I can really convey these intimate things in Juliette’s place, but deep down I felt she had a form of reticence toward the hubbub that surrounded her. Juliette was a young actress playing the part of a young actress, but she wasn’t entirely sure she was this young actress or even that she was entirely comfortable in this actress’s shoes. She was looking for something she didn’t yet know how to define and that my film couldn’t give her, which is why she turned down the part. Ann-Gisel Glass, who, like Juliette, had acted for Godard and Doillon, played Anne. My meeting with Ann-Gisel had an important impact on my films and my life, revealing what I was already living—though I didn’t yet know it—according to whatever irresistible logic each was articulated. 

Juliette was to take a different path. While I was making Désordre, she was shooting Mauvais sang. The two films were practically released at the same time. Leos Carax had written: If I pass her by, I pass everything by and for a long time. This was probably the artistic encounter that Juliette was waiting for, the one that put her at the heart of artistic creation, where she was not a performer, determined by the flow of fiction, but an embodiment of poetry and as such both its inspiration and its intercessor. We all follow a long, strange course to become ourselves. All the more so if we choose to privilege an absolute freedom of movement above all other considerations. I think this act of courage, and the affirmation of such, could alone allow Juliette to realize herself on her own terms and outside the limits of the space assigned to actors. Actors describe the world and its complexity both through the words of the classics and an intimate relationship with the complex currents that define the present: As a painter, a dancer, a singer, or whatever else becomes necessary to her, Juliette does nothing other than give herself the right to be free from this framework and definition and to do what artists do, i.e. to look for something else without having to justify this quest to anyone but themselves.

Through her films and career, Juliette has constantly imposed an autonomy generally forsaken by actors, dependent as they are on other people’s desires. It was Juliette who contacted Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, who made their films possible. She did not produce these films, but she initiated them. She was the one who wanted them. That same path, which is also the path of fate, led us to meet again, years after Rendez-vous—I don’t dare write decades—on the occasions of a collective project of films celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Musée d’Orsay. Two films were born of that initiative, Flight of the Red Balloon and Summer Hours, both chosen by Juliette. My script to Summer Hours suggested a group film that included a female character whom I considered secondary and wouldn’t have dared to offer to Juliette if she hadn’t invited herself and decided to be a part of the film before she even read the script.

With hindsight, it is our reunion that defines that film for me. A film whose theme, inspired by a museum that is also the home of the impressionists, celebrates the alliance of nature and art, the immediacy of the instant, and the way that it traverses time when captured by the artist.

It was as if we had followed parallel paths that had led us outside of the geographic and linguistic borders of French cinema, probably in search of the same independence of action and thought, and as if Juliette had needed these paths to finally cross, simply because the moment had come, because in the disorder of our respective filmographies it was written that they were to meet and that both our career histories and the time that had passed were themselves meaningful.

Continuing on from Summer Hours, we tried to expand on this meaning in Clouds of Sils Maria, in which the game of reflections allowed Juliette to be two things at once, an actress and herself, watching herself be an actress with an intelligence, an irony, and a form of sovereignty that she imposed on cinema after rejecting all that it imposed on her.


Translated by Nicholas Elliott from an article originally published in the French magazine La septième obsession in 2017.

Thirteen of Binoche’s films are now playing on the Criterion Channel.