Juliette Binoche: ‘Men got the awards and women had to deal with naked scenes and silences’

The actor on being a national symbol, working with ex-lovers and past and present, passions and peeves

Some actors come to embody a national cinema through an alchemical combination of demeanour and film choices. You might say that Clint Eastwood is the quintessential American icon, for example, or that Hugh Grant is the embodiment of a certain kind of Britishness.

When it comes to France, one of the country’s archetypal stars is Juliette Binoche, whose understated elegance and cryptic smile have graced art house and popular movies alike since her domestic breakthrough playing an ingénue actor in Rendez-Vous (1985), followed by worldwide fame a decade later with the romantic drama The English Patient (1996), for which she earned an Academy Award.

Now Binoche has two projects arriving in quick succession: Tran Anh Hung’s The Taste of Things in which she plays a self-effacing 19th-century cook; and the Apple TV+ series The New Look, in which she portrays Coco Chanel – meaning Binoche essentially carries the flags of food and fashion, the most visible signifiers of French culture abroad.

During a recent interview in New York, the actor looked amused when asked about being a national symbol. “I’m fine taking on that role,” she said, laughing. “What’s important is what people feel, because the audience relates to something that is unsaid, something beyond ideas. Of course, the theme is food in The Taste of Things,” she continued, “but it’s also love and creating together” (which, come to think of it, is also associated with the French).


Adding seasoning to the pot-au-feu, the movie paired Binoche with her former romantic partner Benoît Magimel. Although they broke up two decades ago, the actors’ intimacy seemed to return on screen, like muscle memory.

Tran recalled that Magimel went rogue while shooting the complex finale. When Binoche’s character, Eugénie, asked whether she was his cook or his wife, Magimel’s gourmand was meant to say, “You are my cook,” to acknowledge her mastery. Except that the actor added ” ... and my wife.”

“Which completely changes the meaning of the scene,” Tran said. “I said, ‘Benoît, you’re crazy; why did you change the line?’ He came to me, smiled and whispered – so Juliette wouldn’t hear – ‘I’m sorry; I got lost in her eyes’.“ (It didn’t fly: Tran asked to redo the shot.)

Comfortably tucked into a banquette at a hotel cafe on a quiet cobblestoned street in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighbourhood, Binoche (59), hopscotched between past and present, passions and peeves. There are edited excerpts from the conversation.

There has been a controversy in France about the decision to submit The Taste of Things for the Oscar for best international feature, instead of Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. Then your film ended up not making the shortlist. What’s your take on this brouhaha?

First of all, we didn’t choose to be selected – we were chosen in spite of ourselves. We put our lives to the side and gave ourselves fully to doing all the interviews. After not being [nominated], Le Monde doubled down on our movie. It was a really mean take, saying that the movie was conventional and old-fashioned, that it was only about food. Some actors – famous ones at that – even liked that article on Instagram. I thought, wow, really? It was tough for Hung, who makes a movie every four or five years. I thought it was harsh, really harsh.

Was it troubling to reunite with Benoît Magimel?

A: No, no, no, not at all. It was liberating for me. Because things were not stuck any more. It created movement into expressions, into saying, into feeling, into being in each others’ presence. That was great to feel. The blockages were gone, and it felt freeing for me. We haven’t spoken, really, since the movie, so I don’t know about him, and that’s fine with me. At least this happened. I think we should all make films with every single boyfriend we’ve separated from.

A big theme in the movie is the idea of transmission: of love, of flavours, of recipes from one generation to another. What was transmitted to you during your childhood?

My mother’s cooking, definitely, but also her love for the arts and her curiosity. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she would make the effort to see concerts and plays. The essence of life for her was the arts. Her cooking was simple, but it was always very tasty. She went to get ingredients in organic farms, and that was in the 1970s.

You have very little dialogue in The Taste of Things. You have been painting for years and have done a dance show with choreographer Akram Khan. Do you have an affinity for projects that involve wordless expression?

When I started, I noticed that most of the awards were given to men, and women had to deal with emotions, naked scenes and silences. I remember as a young actress I was kind of pissed off because I wondered, “When are directors going to give me words to say?” Women didn’t have the chunks of words that men usually have, and I found it so sexist, in a way. Now I feel it’s really changing, also because there are more women directors. But I think you express so much with silences – see: Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Lillian Gish. Everything was within; you could read on the face, so you didn’t have to hear words.

Do you tend to turn up on a set with research and a game plan for the character, or is it more intuitive?

Very early on, I came on Jean-Luc Godard’s set [for Hail Mary, 1985] thinking he was going to give me everything. I came from an acting class where the teacher, Véra Gregh, was very kind and generous, giving you ideas and pushing you in that direction and the other direction for you to feel. Godard was the opposite: He was annoyed by actors; he was sharp and distant. So it gave me the mindset that you come on set ready – even though you can change and adapt. That’s why what I love doing with directors: is having two, three takes for free. And after those three takes, the director can ask me to do the opposite or more of this, less of that. I’m supple. It’s also very fun to go in different directions.

Your Coco Chanel in The New Look has an antic energy. What fed your performance?

She’s really on – and I don’t think she took drugs. [Laughs] It was exhausting because I’m not like that at all. She had this life force and wit. She wanted to have fun after the first World War and the death of Boy Capel, the love of her life, in 1919. She made this logo with two C’s, which I believe is Capel and Chanel together forever, that she wanted to seal her love. Then I think you see Chanel in a different way.

Can you tell me about your coming movie, Uberto Pasolini’s The Return, an adaptation of The Odyssey in which you play Penelope opposite Ralph Fiennes’s Ulysses. You were saying earlier that you’re glad men don’t get all the words any more, but isn’t Penelope associated with stoic waiting?

In this Penelope there’s an anger that has been building for years of being left alone, of having to deal with those suitors, of seeing her son in a fragile position. There’s patience, but there are also a lot of upset feelings. I find it interesting to play that because some people portray her as a saint. We didn’t. The director told me that he really wanted a woman who’s like the feminine perspective on male testosterone wars and men’s need [to] go away, the destructive masculine side. I think it’s a very modern film in that way. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.