Monday 10 April 2023

“I want to make films that are political and social... Films that dare to ask.” - Part Two of Tom Ryan and Philippa Hawker's interview with JULIETTE BINOCHE from 2005

Juliette Binoche, Mary (Abel Ferrara, 2005)

TR: What about Mary (2005), the Abel Ferrara project, attracted you? 


When I read the script I was very surprised because ten years earlier I was asked to do Mary Magdalene and I don’t think I was ready at the time. So when it came back on my table, I read it and I loved the script. I just loved the script. And I was able to say the gospel, the Mary Magdalene gospel, and for me that was for me a big wink and at the same time a privilege. Because nobody had said it and, even though it’s very short in the movie – he cut a lot of it … there were too many words for him – it was very inviting. So when I read the script, and knowing… I was very keen on having the specific translation of the gospel… Abel and I really worked beautifully together. 

He was wondering how he was going to work with me because I don’t take any drugs, I don’t smoke. You know, I feel like a very boring girl for him.


PH: So it was a new journey for him…


Yeah. So he was wondering at the same time… We talked about the gospel and Mary Magdalene and everything, and after I left apparently he cried because he’d never met somebody who was so aware of the situation, the whole story… because he thought he was the only one… [Laughs] Just kidding. No, you know, because he had made it especially in America and all that. So…


It’s kind of nice that, alongside The Da Vinci Code [2006] there’s another Mary Magdalene story out there, don’t you think?


Yeah, but in The Da Vinci Code, even though the journey is about trying to find this Mary Magdalene, it’s an adventure. But it’s very invented. In Mary, the essence of the Mary Magdalene research is there, which is beautiful.

I really loved Abel because he doesn’t take any shit. And on the set he manages to be sane, somehow, so he can have his mind with him. And he would go for his vision and the truth of the vision. So he catches something, he sees something, and he stays with it. It’s very hard to describe because he screams a lot, but he really goes for it, he goes for his vision, and at the end he embraces the floor and your feet and he’s so happy… It was fun; it was fun to work with him.


TR: There’s always been a political aspect to your work. But it’s become increasingly forthright. I’m not sure that’s because you’ve become more public with things you’ve had to say, but has this been something – given your position now – that you feel that you need to go with?


I think my choices when I started as an actress were more related to my needs. You know, my story and my childhood. Now my choices are still related to me but in a different way somehow. I’m more… is the word “serving” the right one? I wonder. It’s more about my feelings towards the others more than towards myself. 

Daniel Auteuil, Binoche, Caché 

So, yes, I want to make films that are political and social. Films with a message or an idea. Films that dare to ask. But at the same time, with Caché  for example, even though there's a political aspect, the need for truth was the most important thing for me. And also having the face of a character who's been humiliated and betrayed and who's angry. It's something i've never played before. And being in a couple with with a tired relationship that gets tense in a second. But, at the same time, it was more related to the viewpoint of an auteur somehow.

As for John Boorman, even though I love him, it was really the subject matter [of In My Country, 2004] I wanted to address. What is racism? You know, you feel you’re not racist, but actually you can be without knowing it. You’ve got to discover it about yourself because you’ve been thinking, “I’m clean. I’m all clean. I’ve never done anything wrong.” And then suddenly you realise, well, I was educated. Others were not educated.


Caché  has something of that element too. You know, we’re good people and this has nothing to do with us…


Absolutely. I knew that Caché  was coming and I was in preparation for In My Country but I decided to go – I was invited actually – to Algeria. I went there with some journalists because it was the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Algiers and I wanted to address the need for forgiveness. And I felt like, me Juliette, I needed to do that. 

In My Country

It’s like when I played in Lovers of the Bridge [1991], I went outside with the tramps because I needed to go where they go. Because otherwise why would you do it? Because there has to be some kind of personal and mysterious relationship between you and the intimacy of the characters you’re playing. Because otherwise what’s the deal, you know?


A lot of actors say that the most exciting thing is not actually acting but researching the roles.


Oh, yes. I mean acting is wonderful because it’s about forgetting yourself and finding the miracle that happens when you forget yourself. When you reach that, it’s really a feeling of connection with the others.

Lovers of the Bridge


But how can that be true when you’re making a film? When you’re only forgetting yourself for a short take? When you’re sitting around waiting for them to set up the next shot, or fixing the lighting? The whole artifice of the situation.


Everything is artificial. I mean, you’re sitting on a chair in a hotel…. Everything is artificial. It’s the way you live it that is not. So it’s the same thing.


So – I’m just thinking of the practicalities of it – between takes you would stay in character?


It depends. It depends on the character. It depends on the crew. It depends on so many things. I myself need to have a prep before because… It depends. For Caché , for example, I didn’t do any prep. It was my choice. It was my choice to jump straight in. Also it was a period of time where I didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. My desire had left me. So I said, “OK, I’ll do it like that.” 

I did a short film for Paris, je t’aime [2006] with one of the directors, a Japanese director, [Nobuhiro] Suwa. And I didn’t do any preparation for that too, which is strange because this woman has just lost a child. But for In My Country, I did prep for quite a long time.


With Caché , though, I can imagine it wouldn’t be right to be prepared for that role anyway. Because it’s all about the world catching up with characters…


It’s not always true because as an actor you have to recreate reality. So both ways can work. On Rendez-vous [1985] which is one of my first films, I was chosen, like, three days before. For The Unbearable Lightness of Being [1988], I was chosen a week before. So I had no time. I was just jumping inside of it. I would have loved to have had three months of preparation. 

At the same time, when one is taken by surprise, you just have to throw yourself in. There’s no time to think. Thinking is a good thing, but for the actor it can be a very bad thing sometimes. You can’t put the intellect right in the middle of the action. But you have to think too, you know, to analyse a little bit what’s going on.


PH: So you went through that period where you didn’t want to work for a while, but that’s obviously changed?


Yeah. The desire came back. But I think it’s necessary. You know, a painter doesn’t want to paint for a while. It’s necessary. It’s like winter. You have the wintertime and you have summer and you need the cycles. It’s a back-and-forth thing. You’ve gotta need in order to come back. And you come back in a stronger way or in a better way or in a different way… Or in a worse way. [Laughs] Who knows? But you’ve felt something. It’s like in love, you know. It’s the same thing. You’ve gotta go away in order to come back, otherwise you suffocate.


Had that happened to you before?


No, it was the first time. Like that, the first time. 


Did it worry you?


Yeah, yeah. It’s not a pleasant moment.


Is it like writers’ block?


There’s something about not wanting to expose yourself. Because you can’t give. You can’t receive, you can’t give. It’s kind of tonal, but at the same time you’ve gotta be patient. It’s the only thing you can give to yourself in such a situation: patience. 


OK. But can you push yourself out of it?


Well, I pushed myself in making Caché . I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to work with Haneke and that’s why I did it… somehow. But at the same time, it was a little violent… While I was in the work, I was in the work. I loved it. Because I love the experience of acting. It’s so amazing. It’s like playing ping-pong. When you love it, you’re with the person: it’s going back-and-forth. It’s so in the movement and alive and interesting. At the same time, I had to reach those terrible feelings of being betrayed and angry. It’s not an easy journey, you know. You don’t always feel good about yourself. Even though, we laughed with Daniel Auteuil.



TR: Did they know that you were going through this?


No. They didn’t need to know. Michael knew a little bit.


PH: So when you work with someone for a second time, does the relationship change very much from project to project?


You know, it is different. I worked for Leos twice, with Techine, with Michael… Um…


Let me try to help here. [Laughter] With Kieslowski?


No, that was really only the one film.


So working with someone for a second time, the difference in the projects can…


Oh, of course. Minghella. Anthony Minghella.


Is that the one you’ve just finished?

Breaking and Entering


Yes. [Breaking and Entering, 2005]… Sorry, I cut you off.


That’s alright. I was wondering: is it just the project that makes the real difference the second time? Is it a bit like renewing an acquaintance or does the fact that you’re working on a different project change it?


It’s hard to generalise because each person’s different. Each director because it was a different period of time. I was living with Leos, so it was a different story. The first time, it wasn’t written for me. It was an idealised version of a woman. The second time, with Les Amants, it was written for me, so it was more of a journey together because it took such a long time. And I became one of the producers.

With Andre, there was a big gap in-between. It was after the Oscars and I wanted to go back home. It was like a homey feeling that I needed. Like “Big Dad, please tell me it’s OK.” So the journey was different, and also he chose a younger actor who’s never done anything before and he was more focused on the boy and had to work more with him. So I felt like he trusted me. And it was strange in a way because I felt like: where was the Andre I knew at the beginning, who was always whispering in my ear and with whom I had such an intimate relationship? It felt like he was gone. So I felt a little abandoned at the same time as it was “OK, I’m growing up.”

With Anthony Minghella, I’d say the relationship was even deeper. Because we hadn’t worked with one another for a few years and the gap was not ten years but almost. But the relationship was just as trusting. He directed me less but at the same time he’s the master of receiving. He’s really wonderful at receiving. 

And with Michael, the main character was Daniel. And it was him. So for him, the relationship was more male-male and I was the woman put aside a little bit, which was perfect for my character. It helped me in a way.


TR: Has the degree of success you’ve achieved become liberating or imprisoning?


(Long pause) I think the liberty or the imprisonment comes from oneself. I don’t believe the world around… Because it really starts from inside. So it’s how I take things that makes a difference, and if I wanna go to an awards celebration in a nightgown it’s my responsibility.


Everybody else would start to dress the same…


Yeah. But I’m completely free at the same time. It depends on how you wanna take things. And it’s true that most of the time, us girls, we tend to not take our liberty as much as we could. Because there’s a convention we wanna be part of. There’s always the need to be part of something. Especially because it’s such difficult work, you know. The dream of being an actor when you’re in the street and doing jobs here and there in order to survive. There’s such a big gap between the dream and the reality and when it comes true, when you do the job you’ve always wanted to, then you have to let go and say, “OK, I can risk that. Maybe I’m gonna lose it, but so what?”


Do you ever feel used and exploited by people like us who, you know, we’re here…?


Well, you started with a camera. And I said, hey! No! No! We don’t know one another. I’m not a thing. I’m a beautiful flower, but…. [Laughter] You see what I’m saying. I’m not a vase with… you know. So now we’ll make a picture together because it’s about a relationship and not about being a thing, being exposed.


PH: Mm, that’s true. It’s about how incredibly powerful images are. About how when you’re an actress you’re giving so much to people who don’t know you. That’s what you want to be doing. That’s the idea, isn’t it? And yet there must be something disconcerting about that… Something that comes the other way, about what they thought they got from you as well.


Absolutely. There’s something about exposing yourself. But it’s about giving. And you’ve gotta know that it’s why directors who know actors respect and love them because they know how difficult it is for them. Like Michael, he knows, because he’s been in the theatre so many, many years. And some directors who, you know, use the actors, for me it’s because they don’t know their work.

Code Unknown


In Code Unknown, there’s that scene where she’s doing the film which really highlights that for me…


It’s such an interesting journey because you have to be vulnerable, you have to be able to open up. It’s like an operation: you’ve gotta show what’s inside in order for people to see the mirror and understand it. At the same time, you’ve gotta be strong because you can’t have one without the other. 

So all the range of going from one to the next one needs strength and the ability to be completely on the floor crying. And I really believe it comes from childhood, and that most actors are terrible children. [Laughs] Because they have to know. And you know, when you’re small, you know the injustice, you know the truth. You know it so well. 

And after that, with the education, with the thought, you tend to put things into place and order them and control them. And you lose the child inside of you. I think the actor has to work on letting the child happen and be alive. And it’s a risk. But at the same time, it’s a need, a need of telling.


TR: We should stop. Thank you very much for your time.


You’re welcome... You want a picture?… We should have one together.


Tom Ryan (l) Juliette Binoche (r)


Photograph by Philippa Hawker

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