Juliette Binoche: A most eccentric career trajectory

Juliette Binoche has gone from Hollywood hits to obscure arthouse movies to radical dance. Is there nowhere this courageous, curious French actress won't go?

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Not many actresses can have turned down leading roles in two Steven Spielberg movies. Few have been able to go from working with a quirky European director to the set of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, and back again Fewer still would have the audacity to launch their dance debut at the National Theatre in London with just four months of training behind them.

Juliette Binoche has done all of the above, and much more. Unarguably the most successful French actress of her generation, La Binoche, as she is known in her native land, is no stranger to eccentric roles and off-the-wall career choices.

Alongside her mantelpiece full of awards – which include an Oscar, a Bafta, a César and a Palme d'Or – she also boasts a higher-than-average rate of left-field accomplishments that might have spelt career suicide for any other actress of her standing.

Her latest incarnation as Mademoiselle Julie in a modernised version of August Strindberg's classic play Miss Julie, at London's Barbican, is positively conservative in the light of some previous choices. Binoche, 48, has made it her calling card to be unpredictable, straddling herself variously between the stage, art-house cinema, mainstream movies and the odd, flagrantly obscure project, as the mood takes her. Her Wikipedia page duly names her not just as an actress, but also a dancer, poet and painter.

There have of course been big-budget, international successes such as The English Patient in 1996 and Chocolat, in 2000. But then there was a kooky dance production, IN-I, with the British-Asian choreographer Akram Khan, in 2008. There was also Shirin, a film by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, in which her cameo performance consisted entirely of sitting still, wearing an Islamic headscarf with tears welling in her eyes as the camera panned her face alongside a host of other beautiful (mainly Iranian) women. And before that, there was a Ferrero Rocher advert, at the height of her Hollywood fame post-Chocolat. Who can imagine a similarly garlanded actress doing anything similar?

Her home life, about which she is extremely guarded, has included a five-year relationship with Leos Carax, the director of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and she was subsequently linked to the actor Olivier Martinez and the Argentine director Santiago Amigorena. She has two teenage children – a son, Raphael, by a professional scuba diver, André Hallé, and a daughter, Hannah, by the French actor Benoît Magimel.

Binoche long ago established herself as a film auteur's darling, having worked with Jean-Luc Godard at the age of 21, then Krzysztof Kieslowski and Michael Haneke (she is said to have approached the latter Austrian director rather than the other way around). Yet she is also a respected figure in Hollywood and mixes up her film roles so that big commercial projects are often followed by offbeat counterparts. In 2007, she starred in the Disney-produced film Dan in Real Life, a romantic comedy co-starring Steve Carell , which grossed more than $65m. She recently turned up in a cameo in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis alongside Robert Pattinson. But then she played a journalist investigating student prostitution in a European film, Elles, which caused a stir for her simulated masturbation scene. Next, she is set to depict the tortured life of Camille Claudel, Rodin's sculptor lover who spent 30 years in a mental hospital, in a French-language biopic.

Binoche prepares intensely for her characters, with the kind of immersive techniques reminiscent of Robert De Niro's method-acting preparations. She apparently slept rough on the streets of Paris before playing a homeless woman in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in 1991, and spent months learning to play the violin for her 1998 role in Alice et Martin. Ahead of Chocolat, an adaptation of Joanne Harris's novel, she is said to have turned up unannounced at Harris's house in Barnsley.

Her more left-field projects have been interpreted by her contemporaries either as a sign of her boldness, or less graciously, as a hallmark of a hare-brained eccentricity. Fellow actor and Gaul, Gérard Depardieu, famously questioned her talents in 2010: "Please can you explain to me what the mystery of Juliette Binoche is meant to be?" he said. "I would really like to know why she has been so esteemed for so many years. She has nothing – absolutely nothing."

Binoche responded in an interview with Empire magazine by saying: "I don't know him. I understand you don't have to like everyone and you can dislike someone's work. But I don't understand the violence [of his statements]... I do not understand why he is behaving like this. It is his problem."

They were finally reconciled when she bumped into him at a market in Paris and confronted him. "I just went up to him and grabbed him and said, 'Hey, what happened, Gérard? Why are you so aggressive with me? What did I do to you?'."

George Clooney, on the other hand, has praised her for the enviable freedom of her career, while the late Anthony Minghella, her director on The English Patient and Breaking and Entering, spoke of her special talent: "She has no skin, so tears and laughter are never very far away."

Not every film has been a success by any means. Reviews of a 1992 production of Wuthering Heights in which she played Cathy opposite Ralph Fiennes's Heathcliff were poor, in just one example. Binoche was dubbed "Cathy Clouseau" and mocked for her "franglais" accent. Numerous other films, including a 9/11 conspiracy story, A Few Days in September, were deemed failures, either commercially or critically. Worse still, in this case, she attracted hostile publicity by airing conspiracy theories of her own over the Twin Tower attacks.

Binoche was born into a theatrical family in Paris. Her mother was a drama teacher, her father a theatre director. She won a place at France's foremost drama school, Conservatoire National Superieur d'Art Dramatique in Paris, but showing early signs of her fiery independence, she left a short time afterwards because she disliked the curriculum. At 21, she secured a role in Godard's Hail Mary, a controversial reworking of the Virgin birth.

Binoche had every opportunity to abandon European cinema for Hollywood by the 1980s, especially after her lead role in Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She sparked the interest of Spielberg, who is said to have offered her roles in Schindler's List and Jurassic Park which she declined, choosing instead to work with Kieslowski on the set of Three Colours: Blue in 1993.

In fact, despite the enormous international success of The English Patient in 1996, she seemed to slowly turn away from America. Some have claimed that her decision to eschew Hollywood directors was down to her frustration with the way in which their films depicted women. Certainly in the 1992 film Damage, in which she played a woman cheating on her fiancée with his father (played by Jeremy Irons), she was reported to have been at loggerheads with the director, Louis Malle.

In an interview last year, she said "no" when she was asked if she considered herself a feminist, and then added that the term "just puts people in a stereotyped way of thinking. I think creation and doing, being active, is more important than talking about it."

On her decision not to relocate to Hollywood at the height of her fame, she has remained unregretful: "I could have moved to America but I didn't because I like independence, I don't like being in a system."