MUBI's retrospective, Juliette Binoche: The Woman with a Thousand Faces, is showing July 14 – September 23, 2019 in the United Kingdom.
A newly reformed Michèle, played by Juliette Binoche, meets her estranged lover (Denis Lavant) on the Pont Neuf, where years ago the two lived as vagabonds, drinking bum wine into the night, falling asleep nestled into the curves of the bridge’s arced barriers. Once a raggedy drifter, with mangy hair and gooey, dull eyes falling gradually into disrepair, her vision is restored in their conclusive reunion, and we observe a more familiar Binoche donning a clean, boyish bob. Once again, she is the woman of our dreams, a mercurial presence whose eyes—wide-set and a conjuring warm brown—give her tender alabaster beauty a poignant intelligence. She launches into a dirty joke about a group of men discussing how often they have sex. The happiest one at the table gets laid once every three years, but—and this is the punchline—tonight’s the night! Binoche’s laughter is screeching, throaty, raucous.
In an interview with the Guardian’s Tim Adams, the actress noted that many of her male directors “hate [her] laugh.” (Though Léos Carax, it would seem, loved it, given the liberties he grants it in Les amants du Pont Neuf). In conversation with the Telegraph, Chris Harvey notes the frequency of the actress’s “madcap laugh.” “It’s just not very Juliette Binoche.” he writes. Chantal Akerman, reacting to the failures of her Binoche-led project A Couch in New York (1996), would claim in an interview that “Juliette laughs a lot, but she is actually very cold.” Indeed, there’s something about Binoche’s laugh that can feel unexpected, human, and on occasion ugly. It’s an odd mannerism for an actress admired for her dramatic prowess, her fine gauging of emotions, her autopilot of composed sensuality. Is it a nervous tick? A facade? A meaningless gesture of approval? Juliette Binoche has starred in multiple films practically every year since her debut in 1983; she is the most celebrated (and highest paid) contemporary French actress, a Hollywood dabbler, a dancer, painter, sex symbol—but how to make sense of that laugh?
Discovered by none other than Jean-Luc Godard, a fresh-faced Binoche played Mary Magdalene in his erotic retelling of the holy family, Hail Mary (1985). Other French directors immediately took note of her demure charms and mesmerizing presence, resulting in a slew of supporting roles. But her first significant part was as lead in André Téchiné’s Rendez-Vous (1985), where she plays a Parisian transplant and aspiring actress (the first of several meta-roles in her career) dealing with misogyny within the industry, and the abuse and possessiveness of her multiple lovers. Many of Binoche’s early characters were objects of an obsessive, passionate desire, though not exactly femme fatales, despite Carax’s gesture at this trope in Mauvais Sang.
In real life, the actress claims she’s been proposed to four times—and declined each one. Carax, one of her earlier relationships in the public spotlight, might have been one of these unlucky men, but with two of his five films spotlighting the actress, it would seem he did manage to give his love a form of permanency. In Mauvais Sang (1986), Denis Lavant is Carax’s alter-ego, Alex, who dumps Julie Delpy’s ever-faithful character and sets his eyes on a mystery woman he first spots on a night-time bus ride. Captured in striking angular shadows like a cypher, this woman is ethereal in her gliding unattainable movements as Alex scrambles to catch up. Anna’s image, reminiscent of Anna Karina in Vivre sa Vie, is one of the many cinematic callbacks Carax employs in the film (Godard and Chaplin chief among them), and her character maintains a cryptic feminine mystique even as it is soon revealed she’s in cahoots with the team of criminals Alex joins. It takes over half an hour of the film, in fact, for Anna to utter her first words, reacting defiantly to Alex’s defense when she expresses to her much older lover, Marc (Marcel Piccoli), her unwillingness to skydive. The smitten Alex believes Anna can be convinced to leave Marc, who is brusque and dismissive of her sensibilities. But Anna is no gossamer woman, she’s steadfast in her commitment to her lover, though she is never hardened or immune to Alex’s affections. Carax is drawn to Binoche’s face, which glows like a cinematic goddess, an image to be worshipped—and yet in her coy inscrutability, she complicates what could’ve been Anna’s one-dimensional representation, imbuing her with a sense of autonomy by her refusal to fully explain her motivations.
Despite the preconception in France that European actors could never find true success overseas (Téchiné in fact publicly reiterated this belief at the Cannes press conference for Rendez-Vous), at 23 Binoche broke triumphantly into Hollywood with a major role in her first English-language film. Perceptive to Binoche’s vulnerable registers, Philip Kaufman cast her as the naifish Teresza opposite Daniel Day-Lewis’s pleasure-mongering surgeon Tomas, in his 1988 adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Teresza is practically childlike, her body soft and boyish compared to the wisened beauty of Lena Olin, who plays Tomas’ other love interest, the libertine Sabina. Nevertheless, he is drawn to her youthful skittishness, her raw and unsophisticated approach to love-making, and her old-fashioned romantic idealism. Inexplicably, Tomas falls into somewhat of a monogamous lifestyle with Teresza, who self-realizes as a photographer while Czechoslovakia undergoes terrifying political change. Fed up with Tomas’ “unbearable lightness” and indifferent philandering, Teresza abandons their Swedish haven and returns to their abandoned flat in Communist Prague, a place she believes more honestly reflects her pained inner state. Tomas follows, knowing the practical consequences of this foolish commitment. Certainly her physical radiance should convincingly inspire such devotion from any man, but a young Binoche doesn’t brandish the self-assured awareness of her beauty the way the Binoche of later films will. Besides, Tomas is not lacking in willing, attractive women. What differentiates Teresza is that she inspires a challenge; her bewitching gaze is imbued with a startling emotional gravitas, encouraging in her admirers a desire that transcends lust. Even in her pitiable fragility, Teresza practically weaponizes the severity of her emotions as an offensive.
Binoche plays what might be the most unglamourous character of her career in Carax’s Les amants du Pont Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge,1991). In an interview with Geoff Andrew at the BFI Southbank, the actress suggested that this grueling project (which took three years to complete, and caused her to turn down multiple opportunities with major directors) marked a turning point in her work. "You've got to go to reality,” she supposedly told Carax, “I want to feel not like this beautiful image, I want to feel real." In the film’s scenic chef d’oeuvre, Michèle and Alex (Lavant) dance like possessed beings across the Pont Neuf to a medley of different musical genres. A tracking shot follows them as they make their way across the bridge with an extravagant display of fireworks in the background. Binoche swings her body like a ragdoll, rivalling even Lavant, a former acrobat and an actor distinguished by his physicality, in her unhinged movements. A later scene shows Michèle drunkenly water-skiing on a stolen boat, and wiping out to near-death (a far-cry from the Anna of Mauvais Sang,who immediately faints when she launches herself out of an airplane, or the overly shy Teresza, who scrambles away mortified when Sabina’s lover walks in on their nude photo shoot). Comfortable in an uglier skin and ready to challenge the trappings of her porcelain appearance, her proceeding work positions her as a victim of trauma, and a woman capable of exerting sexual and emotional dominance.
As Anna, in Louis Malle’s lurid tale of amour fou, Damage (1992), Binoche’s steely, inviting gaze disarms Stephen, a repressed British parliamentarian played by Jeremy Irons. The two have an instant, and overwhelming erotic connection upon meeting, but Anna’s evident desire for Stephen and her willingness to act upon it comes in spite of the fact that she is the girlfriend of his journalist son, Martyn (Rupert Graves). Stephen is all too willing to abandon his marriage and steal away with his new lover, but Anna is an enigmatic individual. Her tragic history involving the suicide of her jealous twin brother defines her ideas surrounding the ethics of sex and romance. Even as she accepts Martyn’s marriage proposal, she is unwilling to cease with her libertine ways and cut off her affair with Stephen.
Damage marks one of the first, most blatant instances of a Binochian character making the first move. Anna initiates their first sexual tryst with a whispered phone call, and when Stephen arrives at her flat, she waits with her hands stretched out in both directions against the side of the bed, surrendering her body as she drops slowly to the ground. There is a firm clarity to Anna’s look; her eyes lock provocatively with Stephen’s as she awaits the consummation, signaling the control she has of the situation even as her body suggests a sexual submissiveness. “Damaged people are dangerous,” she later warns Stephen, “They know how to survive.” Binoche’s eroticism is always complicated by her penetrating, sphinx-like gaze, a quality that makes Anna appear disciplined, accustomed to weathering storms in composed manner, choosing sexual abandon or austerity whenever she sees fit.
By Hollywood standards, Binoche’s Academy Award-winning role in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996) is her most successful. Though she lends her character, a French-Canadian nurse tending to a digressive burnt-to-the-crisp Ralph Fiennes, a distinct warmth and soulfulness, her finest role of the 1990s is debatably as the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s first installment of the Three Colors trilogy, Blue (1993). In the aftermath of a car accident that kills her husband and daughter, Julie is shattered by grief. But a failed attempt to commit suicide by overdose proves that she maintains the will to live; the possibility of relieving her emotional pain is replaced by a look of disgust as she spits out her mouthful of meds. Treacherous secrets left behind by her husband, a famous composer, complicate Julie’s gradual dethawing. Her healing process is not just a matter of working through her loss, but in opening herself up, with ferocity and nerve, to the conditions for renewal and the vulnerability required to experience the joys of making art and love again.
The turn of the century marks the beginning of Binoche’s more sustained involvement in traditional American fare. She led the feel-good Miramax concoction Chocolat (2001), played opposite Steve Carrell in Peter Hedges’ dramedy Dan in Real Life (2007), and more recently, had some blockbuster stints in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) and the white-washed Scarlett Johansson version of Ghost in the Shell (2017).
Yet her output of the past 20 years is best defined by her auteurist collaborations. Today niche film communities celebrate actors like Robert Pattinson, who channel their celebrity into funding work with directors they admire in the world of art film. Binoche, however, has long been a practitioner of these methods. For instance, Michael Haneke’s first French film, Code Unknown: Incomplete Dates of Several Journeys (2000), came to fruition thanks to Binoche, marking the beginning of a pattern in which the actress calls directors expressing her desire to collaborate, and her involvement attracts producers seeking the guarantee of starpower. Through these efforts, she has worked with filmmakers like Claire Denis, Olivier Assayar, Bruno Dumont, David Cronenberg, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Her performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s meta-masterpiece Certified Copy (2010), was awarded distinctions at multiple international festivals, and is exemplary of the sort of experimentation with the established traits of her dramatic persona that makes Binoche an auteur in her own right.
In Kiarostami’s meet-cute turned prickly tête-à-tête between a writer (William Shimell) and Binoche’s single mother and gallerist, the concept of forgery is applied to their relationship, which performatively assumes the form of a marriage. A first date then unfurls into an airing out of grievances from a long, damaged, perhaps bogus history. Binoche’s nameless character is a foil to Shimell’s noncommittal intellectual-type, who is either completely charmless or an intentional blank slate for the inscription of her fantasies. A fidgety, emotionally impulsive Binoche registers a brimming sexualized presence as she plays off his subtle flirtations or bouts of cruelty with triple the dramatic verve than he offers. It’s as if Binoche is habituated to tumultuous romances, having lived and performed them for decades. The source of her reactions are ambiguous, but even without a clear origin, she’s capable of conveying attraction, and hope with a dose of anxiety.
The female directors with whom Binoche has collaborated are far fewer, but they’ve employed Binoche’s trademarks towards unique ends. In Naomi Kawase’s Vision (2018), romantic fulfillment is secondary to Binoche’s lovelorn travel writer, who seeks her own erotically rendered form of enlightenment in her search for “vision,” a rare, magical herb that releases spores once a millennium. Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska visualizes Binoche as a weary career woman in Elles (2011). She’s fed up with her loveless marriage and the defiance of her two unknowable sons, but sustains herself spiritually through her reporting work as a journalist for Elle. This time she’s on assignment profiling the lives of two college students and sex workers. While her privilege and her posh, educated demeanor exacerbate their differences, the stories of these women (one of which is a young, vivacious Joanna Kulig), and how they find empowerment (and experience pain) through their line of work causes Binoche’s character to question the agency she wields in her own conventionally domestic marriage. But it is as Isabelle, in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (2018), that Binoche knowingly interrogates her own Binochian stereotypes, playing yet another Parisian artist navigating the joys and pains of modern romance, but towards a different objective than past versions of this familiar story entail. Binoche’s Isabelle moves through the whiplash whims of desire, anxious self-sabotage, the gloominess of disappointment and unfulfillment as if in a slow dance, conveying the fluidity of changing emotions with maximalist elan. For once, the focus is not the conclusive tragedy or closure of romantic coupling, but the distinctly feminine experience of inhabiting a state of mind constantly jerked around and swayed by the motions of desire and fear.
As she’s settled into her riper years, Binoche’s physicality has assumed a more sophisticated allure, her gaze more scrutinizing, intellectual. It’s what makes the girls in Elles initially distrustful of her, and what causes bitterness from her fellow asylum inmates in Camille Claudel, 1915 (2013). She’s often a striking, wealthier woman in the arts, and were it not for her natural neuroticism, she might very well edge towards the sort of narcissism that feels unrelatable, or unlikable. In Haneke’s Code Unknown, Binoche plays an unsuspecting homebuyer trapped by a murderous psychopath, and in another scene, a happily married woman whose child nearly falls out of her apartment building. In reality, however, Anne is an actress living in Paris with her photographer boyfriend, and one witness to the film’s pivotal scene involving a streetside tussle between people of different racial and class backgrounds. Though Anne perhaps indelicately lunges at any opportunity to discuss her career, there is a self-conscious affectation to her performance, the knowledge that she’s being watched (by other men, by producers, by an audience) as she discusses herself, lending her character an air of pitiability. Her life is hardly “tough” compared to the stories of persecuted immigrants that comprise the film’s other vignettes, but she similarly lives her life in a state of tension. In one nightmarish scenario aboard the Paris metro, Anne is doggedly harassed by a young Arab man, who is further emboldened by her reticence. Attempts to quietly disengage from the situation in a car full of passive, awkward onlookers only aggravate the situation. This nervous energy is something Haneke hones in on in Caché (2005), where Binoche and Daniel Auteil play a married couple terrorized by creepy notes and banal videotape recordings of their daily lives. A chilled study of colonial guilt, the slow undoing of her husband’s character leaves Anne (Binoche) exasperated, pained, and bewildered as she creepingly realizes he might not be who she thinks he is.
In her collaborations with Bruno Dumont, Binoche delivers two performances from opposite sides of the spectrum, in tow with the once notoriously austere director’s shift into lighter fare, musicals and comedies. As the squealy, fainting Aude Van Peteghem in Slack Bay (2016), Binoche plays an aristocratic caricature, full of hooting dramatics and cringey madame laughter. It’s a role quite unlike Binoche’s habitual shtick, and her first frothy foray into slapstick, which tests the actress’s range and proves she’s capable of bawdy, preposterously self-mocking humor. It’s the complete opposite of her role in Dumont’s Camille Claudel, 1915, where she plays the titular artist and ex-lover of August Rodin at the onset of her final years in a mental institution. Not much happens in Claudel; instead, Dumont focuses on the emotional build-up preceding a visit by Claudel’s stiff, religious brother, who is her only hope of release from a place that is gnawing away at her sanity. Dumont’s long, still shots capture Binoche’s unique ability to progress through a range of emotions in mere seconds especially well. Camille endures her confined life in deep anguish at the loss of her ability to paint; she is perturbed and frightened by the eternal cackles of her genuinely ill fellow patients; and occasionally, she experiences moments of intense elation with fleeting signs of good news. There is also a brusque but subtle physicality to the way Binoche wields her body; a drink of water is coded with mental agitation as she gulps away and bangs the cup down with each drink, a weeping fit has Binoche contorting her face in anguish, her body still, but shivering. Dumont has always been partial to casting untrained or little known actors in his films, but when Binoche approached him, Dumont thought immediately of Claudel, whom had long fascinated him. In an interview with Karin Badt of the Huffington Post, Dumont explains: “I chose this character for Juliette because this is what I do: choose the role for the actor, not vice versa. If I want to paint the portrait of a peasant, then I take a peasant. So for this movie about an artist, I took an artist.”
But in my humble opinion, the director that has best made use of the actress’s enduring sensual ease, her vulnerability as well as her egotism, and offered a broader commentary on the implications of her international celebrity, is Olivier Assayas. Leaving behind the more overt genre tinkerings of Irma Vep and demonlover, his first Binoche collaboration was in Summer Hours (2007), a meditation on the relationship between objects, places, memory, and the way they bind people together. Centered on three siblings who must decide whether to sell the old, art-filled home of their recently deceased mother, Binoche’s fiercely modern Adrienne has no practical use for these relics held so dear by her older brother (Charles Berling). Besides, she only visits France once or twice a year, given her growing fame as an artist based in New York City and the future plans she’s made with her American boyfriend (a nod to Binoche’s own status beyond the world of the French film industry). The wry Non-Fiction (2018), about two couples wrestling with the classic problem of knotty romantic affairs on the one hand, and the modern anxieties encapsulated by the swift advent of the digital age, Binoche is a TV actress on a popular cop show, the wife of a book publisher, and the mistress of a novelist. She is knowingly typecast as the sexually freed Binoche we know and love, but also candid in her neuroticism and sublimated awareness of her fading celebrity.
But perhaps it’s wrong to say that any one director can ever be fully responsible for grooming a performance from his or her collaborating artists, especially ones with authorial marks as potent as Binoche’s, so easily capable of co-opting meaning out from under directorial intent. It's a bit like her laugh, which—however you interpret it—expresses a distinctly Binochian multiplicity. This might be why her performance as the entitled, self-deluding actress Maria Enders in Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) remains so compelling n its actress-tailored self-reflexivity. Maria is beseeched by a popular new director to join his production of the play that launched her career; this time, however, as the vulnerable, older women, instead of the caustic younger woman who seduces and ultimately abandons her. Maria is hard-pressed to find the worth in her new, tragic character, whom she finds utterly unlike her. For all the times Binoche has played meta versions of herself, Maria interrogates the cinematic myth of her celebrity—but in Binoche’s own terms—as she grapples with not just changing times, but a changing self, and a willingness to interpret herself in new ways.