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