Juliette Binoche: The Secret Meaning of Binoche
When Martha Frankel interviewed Juliette Binoche in her Parisian home for the cover story to the August 1997 issue of Movieline, she knew there would be some cultural differences. But Binoche is completely unlike the typical Hollywood actress. Not only did she cook and serve lunch to her interviewer, Binoche ate and laughed heartily. She also discussed her recent Oscar win for The English Patient when she took home the trophy everyone expected would go to Lauren Bacall.
Juliette Binoche opens the door to her country house about an hour outside of Paris with a big smile. “Bonjoar” she says. “Bonjoar,” I answer, annoyed that I am using one of the three French words I know so early in the interview.
“Thank you so much for coming to Paris to do this,” she says, extending her hand. Binoche is so petite I expect a delicate little handshake, but hers is so strong it nearly pulls me over the threshold. When I regain my balance, I smile and say, “I would come to Paris to interview anyone whose name I can pronounce.” She isn’t quite sure if I’m kidding.
Until six or seven months ago, Juliette Binoche was basically unknown to American audiences. She had played Tereza, Daniel Day-Lewis’s beautiful, unsophisticated wife in Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She’d played Anna Barton, Jeremy Irons’s future-daughter-in-law/mistress in Louis Malle’s Damage. And she’d played the young woman who’s lost her husband and child in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue. But she was probably more famous for her Lancome ads than she was for her films. Then, as the wonderful nurse Hana in The English Patient, she suddenly began to garner lots of attention, and when she stepped up to accept her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last spring, she captured hearts all over America and around the globe.
You remember. Everyone in the audience at the Shrine Auditorium knew Lauren Bacall was going to win, including Lauren Bacall. But then presenter Kevin Spacey announced Binoche’s name. When Binoche went up to the stage in her garnet velvet Sophie Sitbon gown, with her hair looking as if her lover had just been running his hands through it for hours, she was so obviously surprised and joyous she brought the whole evening back to the high point Cuba Gooding Jr. had earlier given it.
The living room of Binoche’s mid-19th-century house, where she lives with her nearly four-year-old son, Raphael, has comfortably worn maroon and cobalt-blue velvet sofas scattered about, and little tables piled high with books. This is a room people actually live in–a concept so different from the done-to-the-max Hollywood homes I usually see that I am momentarily speechless. Binoche gets us both glasses of juice and plops down on one of the couches.
“Are you enjoying yourself in Paris?” she asks.
“How can you not?” I say. “Everyone at my hotel is bowing and scraping, saying, ‘Is there anything I can get you, Ms. Frankel?’ ‘Is your room OK, Ms. Frankel?’ ‘Would you like some wine, Ms. Frankel?’ I was wondering where all the supposedly rude Parisians had gone. But then they handed me a fax about my interview, and I realized they were being sweet to me because of you!”
Binoche throws her head back and laughs a laugh so raucous and unexpected that I laugh, too. It’s a sound you would expect from a trucker with a beer belly, a deep infectious guffaw. “You got here at the right time,” she says. “It took me some time to be accepted, but now, especially since I got my Oscar, it’s like I’m the Queen of France for a little while.”
Just for the record, Binoche’s slow rise to stardom in her own country may have something to do with the film she made in the early ’90s with French director Leos Carax (her lover at the time), Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. The project took three years to finish, and was one of the most expensive films in French history. It featured Binoche as a homeless woman with an eyepatch (which is like having Sharon Stone wear a false nose and mustache), and was a colossal bomb. In fact, Les Amants was the French Heaven’s Gate (or perhaps, even worse, the Gallic Hudson Hawk).
“Where is your Oscar?” I ask, wondering if people carry them around for awhile until the novelty wears off.
Binoche points her finger in the air. “It’s upstairs somewhere. In a corner. I don’t want to be reminded every day.”
“So tell me, even though everyone’s convinced you were winging it up there, what was written on the little piece of paper in your purse?”
“I was sure that Lauren Bacall would win,” she responds. “I wasn’t prepared, and that was the best preparation. I looked around for Lauren Bacall, and if I had seen her, I would have handed the Oscar to her.”
Can you imagine? Would Bacall have kept it? If I had any doubts before, this convinces me that Binoche is definitely not an American.
“The thing that was so special about the Oscar,” Binoche continues, “was the feeling that I was being adopted by another family, the Americans. That was the most moving thing.”
I can tell Binoche hasn’t studied up on the fate of Oscar winners in her category. But it’s no wonder she looks to re-create a family wherever she can. She was four when her parents, both struggling actors, separated, and sent her and her sister to a Catholic boarding school. Although Binoche has said that her years at school were relatively good, her whole demeanor changes when she talks about it. “I understand what my parents did,” she says, “although I couldn’t for the life of me imagine sending Raphael away now. But I’m lucky–I have work and some money. My parents had neither.”
“You’re so much not a Hollywood actress,” I say. “I can’t imagine what they’ll do with you there.”
“But I am here,” she says, pointing out the obvious. “I can come back here and work, or go somewhere else and work, and Hollywood is not even on my mind. Maybe because I don’t live there, but not every decision I make is about the movies. I am not part of the game. It’s a funny place, no?”
“Oh yes, absolutely. Weren’t the Academy Awards funny enough for you?”
“I had never been there before. I thought it would be so tacky. But all in all, I loved the Oscars, and I would say that even if I hadn’t won.”
“Do you feel the same way about Los Angeles?”
“Whenever I go to California,” Binoche says, “I feel a little unsure. Because I was there for the big earthquake. I was at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was frightening because I had my child with me. He was five months old, and I had been up for 24 hours traveling. On the plane, Raphael wanted to do anything but sleep, so I didn’t sleep. [At the hotel] I slept for two hours, and then the friend who was with me said, ‘You should wake up and feed him because I think he’s hungry.’ So I tried to feed him, but no way he wanted to have anything. He was still crying, and then it began. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know whether it was an inside feeling or an outside feeling, because I was so exhausted. When I realized that it was an earthquake, I grabbed my baby and we went into a doorway. After the earthquake, my child just went to sleep and he didn’t stop sleeping for hours and hours. And I started not wanting to sleep at all.”
“Yup, that’s California, all right,” I say. “You know, the actor Tim Robbins was in the Four Seasons during the earthquake, too …”
“How do you know this?” Binoche asks, as if I’d just been caught in bed with him.
“Because he told me,” I say, perhaps a bit too defensively.
“Oh, well, I love him,” says Binoche. “And Susan Sarandon.”
“Are they actors you’d like to work with?”
Binoche nods with no hesitation.
“Funny,” I tell her, “That’s exactly how I felt, until I actually interviewed them.”
Now Binoche definitely thinks I’m kidding–who would dare disparage the darlings of American cinema?
“I think of The English Patient as two movies,” I tell her, changing the subject. “One part has Ralph Fiennes as a bully who’s in love with Kristin Scott Thomas. That one takes place in the desert and it’s all golds and reds. I hated that movie. But then there’s the movie you’re in, which takes place in Italy, and it’s pale whites and blues, and Ralph Fiennes is now a nice guy, even though he’s burned beyond recognition and dying. I loved that movie, and I was totally annoyed when they kept going back to the desert. And trust me, if I was dying, I’d want you to be my nurse, too …”
“I would want Hana, also,” says Binoche, letting loose with one of her howls. “I feel bad that you didn’t like the other part of the film . .. But Hana was a character that was just so right for me. She can be very warm, very afraid, very serious. But also she has this happiness that I just loved.”
“Not too many of the characters you’ve played have been happy. I’m thinking of Anna Barton in Damage, who caused an accidental death and a spiritual suicide, or the woman who loses her husband and child in Blue, or Tereza in Unbearable Lightness, who’s tortured by her husband’s infidelity while the Russians crush Czechoslovakia’s hopes of freedom …”
“But I am not like that,” Binoche says. “For me, my characters are people who are on a journey. You have to go through something to get to something great, right? Just because my characters feel pain doesn’t mean that my life is a mess. Sometimes people confuse that.”
Isn’t this great? In America, actors try to convince us that they’re a lot more serious than we think they are. Here, they try to do just the opposite.