Juliette Binoche - 'French directors don't know what to do with me'

In her provocative new film, Elles, Juliette Binoche once again fearlessly bares her soul on screen. It's the only way she knows how to do her job, she tells Matt Mueller

Holding court at Café Oscar, just off Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Juliette Binoche is the proverbial woman in black: slim-fit trousers, boots, sparkly jumper and a shock of wavy, jet-black hair swept up and away from her alabaster face. The effect is one of luminous eccentricity; if Tim Burton were here, he'd get a gleam in his eye.

More even than the head on her shoulders, Binoche is renowned for the heart she wears on her sleeve. The late Anthony Minghella, her director on The English Patient and Breaking and Entering, once said: "She has no skin, so tears and laughter are never very far away." It likely explains a reputation for tetchiness that has trailed the actress throughout her career, although today's Binoche, while not wholly sweetness and light, is cheerful and engaged. I can't vouch for the tears but she is prone to frenetic bursts of merriment at seemingly inconsequential things. "In life, I laugh quite a lot at small things," she vouches. "You have to have a little humour about yourself, otherwise you're not surviving."

Today's rendezvous point is appropriately named. La Binoche, as she's dubbed in her native France (a nickname hinting at both respect and diva-dom), is the most garlanded French actress of our time. She owns an Oscar and a BAFTA for The English Patient, France's César and Cannes' Palme d'Or for Three Colours Blue and Certified Copy respectively, and a troika of European Film Awards for The Lovers on the Bridge, The English Patient again and Chocolat. Her latest won't increase the tally, but Elles is still another excursion into thought-provoking terrain by an actress always prepared to bare her soul on camera. It also continues Binoche's fondness for collaborating with film-makers from beyond French borders, in this case with the Polish director Malgoshka Szumowska, who joins a pan-global roster that in recent years has included Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Amos Gitai (Israel), Hsiao-hsien Hou (Taiwan), Santiago Amigorena (Argentina) and David Cronenberg (Canada). "I think French directors don't always know what to do with me," she shrugs of her professional nomadism.

Binoche sets out to confound preconceptions audiences might bring to the women she portrays, and that's certainly true of Elles' Anne, a magazine journalist writing an exposé on student sex workers. One is Polish, the other French; while the women's recollections range from dull to disturbing, they play havoc with Anne's own sense of self in relation to her outwardly privileged existence.

At one point, she is mortified to discover that her husband is using porn, something Binoche admits baffles her in real life too. "A lot of men take porn as not that important, not that serious, whereas women tend to take it personally," she reasons. "It's like, 'How can he make love to me after watching something like this?' I think the first time I was aware that..." – a partner was using porn? – "...Yes. I was really shocked because I didn't understand it. Lovemaking for me is related to feelings, and sensations with feelings, and so when you don't have the feelings it becomes animal-like because you're not in touch with your heart. There's a sad and pathetic side to it."

Another of Elles' conversation-starters is a masturbation scene that's so convincing, people keep telling Binoche she must have performed the act for real. On the day it was filmed, Szumowska planned to observe on a monitor in another room, believing it would make her star more comfortable if she could act the scene in privacy; Binoche was having none of it. "I said, 'No way, you stay with me and tell me all the stages you want. You wrote it, you face it, as I have to face it,'" she recalls. "I had it in my mind that it should be like a painting, with expressions of birth and agony."

One thing that drives Binoche crazy is the desire we have to probe where an actor stops and their characters begin. She admits that the line between herself and Anne is blurred by autobiography, but she's not about to add in the chalk marks for our benefit. "I remember when I first saw Certified Copy, I said to Abbas [Kiarostami], 'I'm just hoping that people aren't going to think that character is me.' He said, 'No, you have to tell them that it's totally you, then two months later, say, 'No, it's not.' So Anne is totally me and totally not me." Binoche unleashes a vigorous barrage of laughter.

The actress won't discuss her romantic state of affairs but over the years has been domiciled with several of her partners. They include directors Leos Carax and Amigorena and the actors Olivier Martinez and Benoît Magimel, with whom she has a 12-year-old daughter, Hannah. She also has an 18-year-old son, Raphael, by pro scuba diver André Halle, and, lest we leap to conclusions, hastily remarks, "My son is not like my son in the film, always playing video games." In March, Binoche turned 48, an age for most actresses when film-makers' eyes start roaming the ingénue ranks. Yet Binoche has the radiance of a woman half her age, and the fact that she typically handpicks directors, and works both in France and abroad, is proving an excellent career strategy. "I chose to stay in Europe and work with a lot of foreign directors," she says. "I could have moved to America but I didn't because I like independence, I don't like being in a system."

When she does slip in to an English-language role, such as in the 2007 Steve Carell vehicle Dan in Real Life, it's what she calls, "a wink... like, 'Hi! Remember me?'" George Clooney has told Binoche that he envies the self-sufficient freedom of her career, which is a far cry from Gérard Depardieu's ungallant remarks in 2010, in which he expressed bewilderment at the esteem in which the actress is held. ("I would really like to know why she has been so esteemed for so many years. She has nothing. Absolutely nothing!", he said). Her reply? "You can dislike someone's work but I don't understand the violence [of what he said]... It is his problem."

Binoche is no stranger to powerful emotions, whether arousing them in herself or others. If she's been a moody or difficult collaborator in the past, it was never without reason, she argues. "I walked off the set of Damage twice, not because I was clashing with Louis [Malle] but because I felt humiliated playing that character," she says. "I think I'm very patient and always willing to try things. If I have resistance sometimes it's because I see a director who's freaking out and wants to have control and they tell me, 'You're going to lift your face like this, you're going to do this...' No! Don't tell me that, just let me live it." So that would make David Fincher her nightmare collaborator? "You say that but Haneke is also very precise and I've made two films with him... although the second time [Hidden] he was so controlling, I didn't like it at all."

Her upcoming collaboration with Bruno Dumont on the Camille Claudel biopic, La Creatrice, is partly spurred by a desire to challenge the Hors Satan director, who she views as a "visionary" talent. "I want to move him in his convictions," she reveals. "He doesn't work with actors, which I find sad. He has pre-conceptions about actors, which I understand because I don't like 'acting' either. When I see 'acting', it makes me want to vomit."

Based on Claudel's own letters, La Creatrice will focus on the last 30 years of the French sculptress' life, when she was confined to an asylum at her family's behest. It has the potential, Binoche agrees, to be the role of her lifetime. When we meet, two weeks off the start of shooting, she professes to feeling a little bit daunted. "I feel like it's the most difficult and painful part I will ever play," she says. "I don't know if it's frightening but the responsibility is big."

'Elles' is released on 20 April

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game