The iconic French actress lets her guard down to reflect on her preference for working with foreign directors in France, as her latest film Elles opens around Australia.
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8 Feb 2013 - 10:44 AM  UPDATED 8 Feb 2013 - 10:44 AM

For many years Juliette Binoche kept her distance from the press and was particularly guarded in interviews when she gave them. The dramas on the wildly protracted shoot of 1991's The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont- Neuf) directed by her then-boyfriend Leos Carax had taken their toll. In an interview with Olivier Martinez for 1995's The Horseman on the Roof in Paris, woe betide me if I mentioned Binoche, his then-girlfriend and co-star, who of course greatly assisted his ascent to fame.

Even if Binoche has long been France's highest paid actress she has led an unconventional lifestyle and for a long time, she kept it under wraps. Who can blame her for not really wanting to go to Hollywood—even if she won and Oscar for 1996's The English Patient —since in France she could do as she pleased? Besides, France is a highly politicised place and Binoche, very much a political animal, thrives on the energy there and revels in her ability to stir up the status quo, especially when it comes to social issues. It's not surprising to discover her Jewish roots, and that in fact she spent a lot of her childhood with her maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

While she is one of the world's greatest, most fearless and most beautiful of actresses, we appreciated her even more when, rather than take centre stage, she held up a placard “Free Jafar Panahi” as she accepted her 2010 Cannes best actress prize for Certified Copy, directed by Panahi's fellow Iranian, Abbas Kiarostami.

A year later Binoche was in Toronto and who knew what to expect when she hit the stage for the world premiere of Elles, a Paris-set film about a journalist writing a story on young prostitutes, one Polish and one French. As in Michael Haneke's Hidden (Caché) her bourgeois Parisian existence is shaken as she realises the young women are probably in a better place emotionally than she is. While 20 years earlier she may never have performed let alone discussed her exploratory masturbation scene in the film, Binoche now enjoys a freedom to express and do exactly what she pleases. She had the huge Toronto crowd in stitches as she energetically denied that the scenes were real.

“I didn't do it for real of course, because I am an actress”, she told the crowd.

“I was so surprised by that question!” she admitted in our interview the following day. “I was just re-creating life.”

Certainly her director, Poland's Malgoska Szumowska likes to outrage.

“She is very direct,” Binoche concurs.

And I think you are more direct than you used to be?

“Maybe, maybe,” Binoche responds. “The journey with Malgoska was really fun on this film. We are probably going to make another movie together. She is very talented and it's as simple as that. She is what she is feeling. The scene with the man singing, she came with that idea. I loved it. It was very funny.”

The Paris-set film is not necessarily pro the French either. “A lot of people don't like the French ways of being with strangers -- they feel like they are so aloof and they are so proud of their cheese and wine all the time!” Binoche pronounces. “The film is showing that and I love it! I love that you can have some criticism. I think it's very important. That is why I love working with foreign directors because they come to France and they have a view and they are kind of teasing. Like Haneke coming to Paris [for Code Inconnu and Caché] or KieÅ›lowski [Three Colours: Blue] or Hou Hsiao-Hsien [The Flight of the Red Balloon]. I have worked with a lot of foreign directors in my own country. I like it.”

Now she has of course moved on to women directors. What has she discovered through working with Szumowska and Sylvie Testud, her director on Another Woman's Life where she appears alongside Mathieu Kassovitz (Amelie) in a rare romantic role? (The film will screen as part of the upcoming French Film Festival in Australia.)

“Sylvie is an actress so it is a little different because somehow she knows in advance what she wants,” Binoche responds. “Probably when she was writing she was kind of acting, so somehow she had to let go of her own ideas and trust me. It was something she had to learn and I think she was kind of forced to learn, because her anticipation sometimes was too much for me. You cannot say to an actor what they should be doing before they do it.

Some other male directors have done that too, but Magolska was never trying to anticipate, she is expecting the actor to bring something of themselves.”

Interestingly I write this in Berlin the night before Szumowska is set present her new movie, In the Name Of, about gay priests in Poland. The film will undoubtedly be controversial in the very Catholic country, my Polish colleagues tell me.

Binoche also has a film at the festival, Camille Claudel 1915, directed by Bruno Dumont. Again the actress lets rip with a bravura performance as the famed sculptress who was locked away in a mental asylum without being diagnosed with any sickness. French critics have seen the film and commend Binoche's brave performance though concede that Dumont's very particular style is not for everyone. Binoche is of course also a sculptor and painter herself and also tested the boundaries of her physicality in dance. In 2008 she embarked on a world tour with a modern dance production devised in collaboration with Akram Khan and which saw her perform in Australia.

It will be illuminating to catch up with Binoche in Berlin next week as her links with Australia have strengthened. She was at the time of our previous interview planning to make a film in Australia, with a woman director, Kim Farrant, but the relationship drama has yet to happen, if it will at all. Meanwhile in March she is set to start filming Australian director Fred Schepisi's Words and Pictures in Vancouver. Clive Owen stars as a charismatic English teacher alongside Binoche's reserved art teacher (now there's a change of pace) as they fall for each other at an elite New England prep school. The film is being sold at the market in Berlin.

Whatever her future, Binoche seems keen to come here to work, having so much enjoyed herself before.

“My daughter loves Australia,” she says of Hannah her 13 year-old with one-time French heartthrob Benoît Magimel (The Piano Teacher). “It was Easter when I was in Sydney doing the dance so Hannah had two weeks. She loved the zoo and that there were so many birds. We walked a lot in the park, we went around and it was lovely. It was great.”

Elles is now in limited release through Palace Films.