Moi, celebrity? Non!
The French actor talks to DONALD CLARKEabout soul-searching in her films, and why she’s not a celebrity
Saturday afternoon at the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge. Some sort of rugby match is about to take place and – the relevant stadium being just a dropkick away – the foyer is packed with rubicund middle-class folk in old blazers or new Barbour jackets. You’d expect Juliette Binoche to stand out like a princess at a bake sale. This does not turn out to be the case. Wearing a green hoodie, her hair mildly spiky, she looks as if she’s arrived to trim the hedge.
No. That’s not fair. She may be wearing only a smear of make-up, but Binoche still gleams with casual splendour. Now an implausible 48, Binoche asserts her authority from the start. Any flabby, poorly structured question is sent back as one might return lukewarm soup to an inefficient restaurant kitchen. She has a hearty, throaty laugh, but such chortles have to be earned.
I begin by casually mentioning how busy she seems. Next week, she will attend the French Film Festival at the Irish Film Institute. Her days are spent shooting A Thousand Times Good Night, a co-production between Ireland, Norway and Sweden, in and about our capital city. In the course of our conversation, she mentions at least three further impending projects.
“It’s a passion. I don’t see it as work,” she says. Okay. But she still has to crawl on to the set at daybreak. “It’s still an internal search. It’s about the human soul. What we do is done with an immense spectrum of what’s inside ourselves. Any film is always an attraction to another field inside us. It’s always a search for an actor.”
Phew! You don’t get that sort of response from Adam Sandler. So, if the work really does involve that degree of soul searching, it must be terribly revealing for an actor. Can she bear watching herself on screen?
A slightly icy pause.
“That’s five questions in one. You have to ask just one question at a time,” she says with the flicker of a smile. “I am not watching myself. It’s different. You are using yourself and putting in a different layer. That’s called creation.”
Binoche has been inserting “different layers” into her work for close to three decades. Born in 1964, she grew up in a creative environment. Her father was a director and a sculptor. Her mother was a teacher and an actor. In earlier interviews, she has admitted that childhood was not entirely idyllic. Her parents divorced when she was a child and she was largely educated at boarding schools. Was there any frolicking in glades? Did she know she came from a broken home?
“Kids have joy they can’t explain,” she says, before embarking on another bout of quasi-poetry. “If you can keep that up then it’s the nature of life. Nature is giving. When a tree loses all its leaves there is something amazingly beautiful. We are the same. How do we allow it? As a child, my real gift was being given that joy. I could play for hours. And that’s what helped me survive. Childhood is not easy. You have to learn betrayal, abandonment – all the pressures of life.”
It sounds like that is what she is still doing. Acting is play. “Yes, exactly. Playing is preparing for life.”
She didn’t know until well into her teens that she wanted to be an actor. Her parents, aware of the pressures, were initially wary, but eventually ended up getting behind the dream. In 1985, she secured a role in André Téchine’s agreeably odd Rendez-vous. She hasn’t had a quiet year since.
It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that she really began to register with the public. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, she starred alongside a young Daniel Day-Lewis. The extravagant Les Amant du Pont-Neuf, directed by sometime romantic partner Leos Carax, addled arthouse brains in 1991. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue further secured her position.
Binoche never had ambitions to become a celebrity. But such has been her fate. “No. I would never call myself as celebrity,” she says. All right, all right. But she certainly has a face that gets recognised. By 1996, when she won an Oscar for The English Patient, Binoche must have found it difficult to buy milk without having to pause for autographs.
“When that happens it is mostly because of something they recognise in their own lives. They have been through the emotion of the film and it stays in them. That is different to being a celebrity on TV, where they think they know you.”
I suppose this does make a kind of sense. It may be to do with her slightly scary Gallic gravity. That dark steadiness she has doesn’t exactly invite intimacy. She is not the sort of person you’d sling your arm around before asking your brother-in-law to engage the camera-phone. Still, for such an apparently thoughtful person, the attention must be a nuisance.
“No, no! I never felt that,” she says. “It must be hard when you go through the gossip stuff. But with me, everything relates to films that I chose with my whole being. If it does bother me it’s when I am with my family. I don’t want to bother my children. No thank you! If somebody wants to take a picture I say ‘yes’ because it’s easiest for both them and myself. So, to make a short answer: no, it doesn’t bother me. Ha ha!”
She makes an interesting point here. Binoche has had a modestly colourful home life. She has enjoyed lengthy relationships with partners such as Leos Carax, actor Benoit Magimel and Argentine screenwriter Santiago Amigorena, but she has never married. She has two children: Raphael (23) is the son of scuba diver André Halle; Hana (12) is Magimel’s daughter. No proper gossip has, however, attached itself to her. In repeated interviews, she has slightly wearily pushed aside questions about her reluctance to walk down the aisle. She commits herself to left-wing causes. But Binoche never appears in the seamier corners of the tabloids.
“Ha ha! No. Why? In France it is easier. In England it’s harder. In America it is harder. There are better things to chat about than gossip. The rules are different in France. The laws are different. You can sue in France. In America and Britain you can’t. I am not that interested in that subject to tell you the truth. It doesn’t concern me. I have other things to think about.”
She really does seem very confident in herself. No aspect of her life has escaped close analysis. Is it possible that she looks back at any decisions with regret?
“Oh, you are English. You are very, very English. I don’t have that way of thinking.”
Well, I’m not actually. But we’ll let it slide. Is this a particularly English question? “Yeah, it’s that thing about having second thoughts – the notion that if you had thought about something, you wouldn’t have done it. For me that’s not the way I function. I learn from my mistakes. How do I learn otherwise? My mistakes are my gifts.
“It’s the same in life. It’s not about being bad or good. Everything is good if you learn. Everything is bad if you don’t learn.”
Well, what about the problems of raising children while travelling the world? Binoche agrees that she has managed to forge a genuinely international career. We last saw her in a Canadian film: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. At the French Film Festival, she will discuss her appearance in an upcoming French movie: Sylvie Testud’s Another Woman’s Life. Here she is working in Ireland. It’s tough to keep close to kids in such circumstances.
“They have been travelling a lot – until the moment came when they had the choice whether to come or not. But mostly they have travelled with me all the time. It was my responsibility to reset their lives in every country we’ve visited. I found a French school wherever we were going. It’s work. You have the nanny. You have my assistant. You have somebody helping.”
Binoche declares herself a fan of Ireland. She visited here when a young thing and “discovered Ireland as a romantic place”. Since then she has returned to receive the Maureen O’Hara Award at the Kerry Film Festival and she looks forwards to greeting the locals at the IFI next week. Meanwhile, talk continues concerning a new project by fearsome French director Bruno Dumont. It doesn’t sound as if she has much time for dossing.
“I am always doing something,” she says. “I am alive. I need to do things. When I am a mother I am creating as well. A relationship is a creation as well. That is not separate from the creation process. We are always creating. It’s just that we are not aware of it. I am not good at sitting and watching TV or lying on a beach. I am very insecure doing that.” She prises her eyes open with her index fingers to indicate a zombie state.
“People are mesmerised by TV. They are like this. But the internet, I love.” She has recently dipped into Twitter, but only for purposes of research. Binoche is not the sort of person, I imagine, who tweets when she buys a new pair of pyjamas.
“I don’t have time to buy pyjamas!” I can believe it. Gathering her things, she potters off into the heaving throng of rugby supporters. Nobody appears to notice her. That, I imagine, is how she likes it.
Juliette Binoche will attend the French Film Festival screening of Another Woman’s Life at the Irish Film Institute on November 24th