Free Spirit

A French actress of international acclaim, Juliette Binoche is also a woman with real compassion, as Martin Gani discovers 

A French actress of international acclaim, Juliette Binoche is also a woman with real compassion, as Martin Gani discovers  To define Juliette Binoche as a gifted French actress would be a gross understatement. She is a versatile international star who can play a part in a Hollywood blockbuster as effortlessly as she can in a low budget Chinese or Iranian film. But despite all the fame and success, she comes across as a down-to-earth, sensitive human being. Born in Paris in 1964, Binoche has appeared in more than 40 films including international hits such as Wuthering Heights, The English Patient and Chocolat. During her career, she has received numerous nominations for top prizes around the world and has won an Oscar as well as many other awards. The role that truly launched her onto the international scene came with Three Colours: Blue. The film premiered at the 1993 Venice Film Festival and earned her a Golden Lion at Venice, a C�sar in France and a Golden Globe nomination in the US. Bearing in mind that she turned down a part in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park to take the roll in Three Colours: Blue, I wondered what had attracted Binoche to the role?“In that film my character had to deal with losing her family, an issue I’m deeply interested in,” Binoche explains. “At the time a friend of mine was going through a similar pain. I lived through it with her and was very familiar with how she felt. I did it for her.”I’ve been granted an interview with the star because she is promoting Certified Copy, a film by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. I ask how she chooses between the many different parts she is offered. “I don’t choose them, they choose me!” she replies, smiling. “Actually, I do have to make choices, depending on how close I feel to the character and whether it can reveal something hidden inside. Generally, I like challenging roles. It also depends on who the director is, but it’s nice to be in demand. “When Kiarostami asked me to work with him, I was honoured, I had worked with him before, and it was the human aspect of the role that drew me to his project. In the story, a man and a woman pretend to be a couple. Interestingly, the film explores whether it is better to be the original self rather than somebody else – a copy.”The film Certified Copy is set in Tuscany, Italy and the male protagonist is played by the British baritone William Shimell. So how does Binoche adapt to working in so many different places, with actors and directors from such vastly different backgrounds? “First of all I love the challenge of working abroad with people who have a different approach and way of doing things; it’s always an enriching experience. When it comes to adapting, it’s a two-way thing. In France, the director tends to be in total control; in the Anglo-Saxon world, teamwork usually prevails. Asians are different again. “Kiarostami knows exactly what he wants – he prepares the frame and leaves you free to do as you like within that frame. The Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is not traditional at all, when we did the Voyage Of The Red Balloon (2007) he gave me no script. The story took place in Paris and he said he didn’t know enough French to write a script, so he only gave me some basic instructions about the scene and I had to improvise the dialogue – it was tough at first but in the end I learnt a lot from the experience. “In Tehran I worked with Kiarostami in a curious film, Shirin. A group of Iranian actresses and I are sitting in a dark theatre watching and listening to a 12th-century Iranian poem called Khosrow and Shirin but the spectators never see what’s happening on the stage, just our reaction as an audience. The Iranian actresses were so dynamic, full of life, hopeful, I learnt a lot from them too.”

Perfect performanceBinoche has an almost childlike enthusiasm for her work. When Kiarostami told her the story of Certified Copy as if it had really happened to him personally, she was totally taken in by his words and her enthusiasm for this piece of fiction was what prompted him to make the film. Was this an easy part to play? “No,” Binoche laughs, “I had a lot of trouble walking up and down cobbled streets of Tuscan towns, wearing high heels!” She then gets serious. “I was perplexed at first; the art gallery owner I play is a neurotic character, constantly changing moods. How can you be one way one minute, and another the next, and make it all look natural?” Kiarostami had no such doubts about her abilities, “She did an excellent job,” he commented afterwards. “It was a perfect performance – she made everything look and sound real, not a film but a real story.” Kiarostami was prophetic, Binoche picked up the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Does Binoche have a favourite actress she draws inspiration from? “Italy’s Anna Magnani is my role model,” she reveals. “I’ve seen all her films many times over. She never seemed to act, everything she did looked so natural.” In France, Binoche is unsurprisingly a superstar having appeared in French classics such as Lovers On The Bridge and the hugely successful 2008 movie, Paris. Anyone in Cannes during its 2010 Film Festival would have noticed Binoche’s picture everywhere. This was not zealous advertising for Certified Copy; Binoche’s face was chosen for the official festival poster. How did she feel about being everywhere?“I was contacted about it earlier in the year asking for my consent, I said yes’, of course, even though it made me feel like I was looking into a mirror everywhere I went.” But Binoche is not just an actress, globetrotting from one film set to another. She is a mother of two; Rapha�l, 17, whose father is scuba diver Andr� Halle, and Hannah 11, whose father is actor Beno�t Magimel. She finds time to raise funds for M�decins Sans Fronti�res, and has been a member of Aspecta, a Cambodian charity organisation, since 1992. She is also godmother to several Cambodian orphans, to whom she devotes much time. Family is a sensitive issue with Binoche. Her parents – both  actor-directors – divorced when she was just four years old. What’s her view of family life for a busy, international actress? “Like everybody else, when I think of family I mainly think of my children and my partner (Argentinian filmmaker Santiago Amigorena). I’ve always seen my own parents separately, but now I have my children, my sister Marion, grandparents, nephews, nieces to create that sense of family life together.  Looking back, my relationships ended because my partners didn’t really make a commitment, but perhaps it was also my fault, a little. When a love story ends you never really know why, however much you analyse it. I insist that my children regularly see their respective fathers, I hope to teach them to be independent, to pursue what they love the most, to find their own way in the world. Making Certified Copy also gave me the opportunity to reflect on life as a couple. I asked myself loads of questions. I have two children, a job many would envy and I travel around the world – maybe I could live as a single mother but sharing all this with someone is a profound human need. I just can’t do without it even though I’m aware that relationships don’t last forever today with all the temptation there is out there.”Binoche’s creative talent is not limited to acting. In the film Lovers On The Bridge, she plays an artist and the paintings seen within the film are her own work. She also painted the poster for the film. In 2008 she published a book of portraits she had painted of directors she had worked with and portraits of the respective characters she herself played. Did she get the directors to pose for her? “No,” she says, “it’s all from memory, it would have been too much to expect them to sit and pose for me for hours!” Is it something she does to relax? “Not really, it is just another medium to express yourself, it takes as much commitment, work and concentration as acting.”

Heart and soul

As if acting and painting weren’t enough, last year Binoche showed theatre audiences her dancing skills in a show called In-I. Partnered with dancer- choreographer Akram Khan, the show toured major European capitals. That must have taken some courage. Binoche breaks out in yet another contagious smile. “It did take courage I must admit, I had never danced on stage before. It was pretty daring, an intense show, both emotionally and physically.” Binoche is still keeping as busy as ever, an American movie, Son Of No One, where she stars alongside Al Pacino and Ray Liotta was released in the US in December 2010. I ask her what she’s doing currently?“I’m working with Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska on her next film, Sponsoring. I’ll play the part of a journalist investigating prostitution among university students. That’s a social theme I’m very interested in. Here we have women selling their bodies for need or luxury. No emotions get in the way but unplugging the heart is a dangerous thing, it leads to exploitation and loss of independence. It’s not worth it in the end.”Nevertheless, Binoche does wear her heart on her sleeve and works hard in support of charities and causes she believes in. And that is surely worth a lot.