Juliette Binoche: Blond ambition

Outgoing and forthright, the French-Polish star in person is at odds with her often shy screen persona.
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The Independent Culture

"I'm like Mick Jagger, I can't get no satisfaction," sings Juliette Binoche. It should be a dream scenario, an Oscar-winning actress belting out The Rolling Stones' hit to me, but in fact it's rather unsettling; mainly because I've never pictured Binoche as being gregarious. It's a curious thing with actors, after seeing them play a certain type of character often enough over a career we imagine that they're like that off screen as well.

I'd imagined a shy, intelligent and ethereal character, seductive without being overtly sexy, but the contrast between Binoche the person and the actor is like chalk and cheese. From the moment she walked into the room, my preconceptions exploded. Her hair blond and curled for a part she's shooting in Paris, brilliant scarlet lipstick and wearing a flower-print vintage frock, she looked like a bizarre mix of Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot.

At least in her new film Breaking and Entering we're on more familiar ground. It's directed by Anthony Minghella, who was at the helm when the actress scooped the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as a nurse in The English Patient. This time, Minghella has cast her to play an intense, shy Bosnian single mother named Amira living in north London. Her son (Rafi Gavron) is a teenage tearaway involved in robberies, who brings Will, a dashing architect played by Jude Law, into her life and a tricky romance blossoms. Binoche is beguiling; believable both as a single mother on an estate and as a woman who could prise a man as handsome as Law away from his partner, played by Robin Wright Penn.

The 42-year-old Binoche says she wanted to play the role because, "I'm playing an immigrant who worked as a musician in Sarajevo and is a sew... what is the word for someone who sews, a couturier?" she asks. It is the one occasion it's evident that English is not her mother tongue. Informed that the word she is searching for is seamstress she repeats it to herself a before continuing, "She is a seamstress and it so happens that my Polish grandmother who moved to France was also a seamstress, so it means a lot to me."

It's easy to forget that the actress has roots in Poland. She's treated like royalty by the French media who simply call her "La Binoche". Her mother and grandparents are from the southern Polish town of Czestochowa, known for its black Madonna icon.

Being of partly immigrant stock, roles that deal with the clashing of nationalities have often most appealed to Binoche. "Immigration is part of our contemporary world. In Michael Haneke's Caché [Hidden] I was on the other side, the native; this time I'm here as the immigrant."

In The English Patient she was Canadian and in Chocolat, the other role for which she received an Oscar nomination, she was the townsperson who was first to aid the despised Irish Gypsies.

She still has strong roots in her mother's home town. Binoche recently put on an exhibition of her own artwork there, which was opened by her mother. The 28 pieces included depictions of her grandmother and a self portrait. Binoche, who admits that she has from time to time seriously thought about giving up acting admits, "If I ever quit, the thing I would enjoy most is that it would give me more time to paint."

Chatting to Binoche is like picking blindly at a box of chocolates. You never know what is going to come out, but you know every choice will give you something to chew on. Out of nowhere she admits to telling fibs: "Oh, I lie. I lie sometimes when I say I've seen a movie that I haven't seen. The reason I lie is because I'm ashamed and then I'll run on that same night and get the film and watch it.

"When I shot with Kieslowski I lied to him because I didn't see his films. But before we shot the film I saw them. There was once a time, I'd watch the films after working with the director, but now I always watch them before."

If that won her the role, thank our lucky stars she did, for it was playing a French composer for Kieslowski that it first became apparent that she is one of the great actors of modern cinema.

Religion has played a central role in many of her films. In Breaking and Entering, the fact that her character is a Muslim saves her son's life when they flee from the Balkans. After graduating from the National School of Dramatic Art in Paris, Binoche first earned plaudits for playing a contemporary teenage incarnation of the Virgin Mary in Jean Luc Godard's Je Vous Salue (Hail Mary) in 1984.

And last year, in Abel Ferrara's Mary, she played an actress who becomes obsessed with Mary Magdalene. It's a film she regards as a success despite its box-office failure and failure to get a release in many countries, including the UK. "Mary Magdalene is a fascinating symbol and I don't have a specific religion. I was aware of the Mary Magdalene gospel before I met with Abel. It was so important to tell the world this story. It's a new perspective, from a woman."

Her recent movie choices have reflected her own fears about the post-September 11 world. Just opened in Paris is A Few Days in September, in which she plays a French spy opposite John Turturro and Nick Nolte. Set in the days preceding the attack on the World Trade Centre, it is a conspiracy thriller that suggests people around the world, including those within the US secret service, knew the attack was about to take place.

It's a plot that Binoche immediately bought into; "When we hear about the truth we can't accept it because it stinks. You see Michael Moore's film and it's like yeah, we don't do anything about it."

In both A Few Days in September and Breaking and Entering, Binoche plays a concerned mother. She has two children of her own, Raphael (with Andre Hallé) and Hanna (with French actor Benoît Magimel). Bringing them up in a post-September 11 world, she says, "I feel pessimistic and will do so until people realise they can do something about society."

It's been a decade since she won her Oscar. At the time she was living in Los Angeles, but it was winning the award that made her homesick for France: "It's true that after winning the Oscar, I felt like going home. I felt guilty somehow. There was something about saying "yes" that was difficult. It's probably because of my history, the history of my parents. I felt that they were fighting for life and to survive [in their troubled marriage], and suddenly me being recognised as high as that, it felt like an unknown world." She kept the 12in gold statute hidden in a box for years, but recently has found a home for it in her office. Perhaps it's a sign that Binoche has accepted her acting status, or it could be, as she quips, "I'm paid enough not to have any regrets."

Having earned enough money, in fact, to retire, she's choosing roles on artistic criteria. The blond hair was required for her part in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's Orsay. Binoche took the part on the strength of the synopses and a desire to work with the director. She's also got projects pencilled in with Abbas Kiarostami and Amos Gitai. So while there's a Hollywood comedy in the pipeline, Binoche fans can look forward to seeing her in more eclectic roles that challenge her image as the quintessential French woman.

'Breaking and Entering' opens on 10 November