It was 20 years ago that Juliette Binoche first captured men's hearts in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, going on to bring her brand of sexual tension to The English Patient, for which she won a 1996 Oscar. Today, at 43 years old, the French actress is still in huge demand as a love interest, long after contemporaries such as Meg Ryan and Daryl Hannah have disappeared from the romance genre.
Binoche's latest film, Dan in Real Life, sees her as the lust object of not one but two men. She's also played Richard Gere's troubled wife in Bee Season and Jude Law's lover in Breaking and Entering in the past two years.
Her hesitant use of the English language don't hurt her mystique, of course. It also comes in rather handy when avoiding tricky questions; a quick furrow of the brow, and a puzzled, tentative, "I do not understand," works a charm.
Mother to Raphael, 14, whose father is the professional scuba-iver Andre Halle, and daughter Hannah, eight, from her relationship with the actor Benoît Magimel, Binoche has so far refused to wear anyone's wedding ring.
"But I would love to get married!" protests the actress, who refused to succumb to the charms of French actor Olivier Martinez, whom she dated for three years until 1997, years before he was briefly "Mr" Kylie Minogue. "Don't think that, just because I am French, I have anything against it," she laughs.
The steadfastly single siren famously once said: "I have been proposed to four times. Twice at the beginning of a relationship and twice at the end of a relationship. I've never said no. I just didn't give an answer."
If Dan in Real Life is about love at first sight, Binoche insists she's no stranger to the phenomenon. "I have fallen in love within the space of three days, just like in this film. And, yes, it was reciprocated," she adds. "I think love at first glance is all about recognising someone you relate to and you recognise the need and the connection that is beyond yourselves."
Many Hollywood leading ladies owe much of their success to hair, make-up, cleavage and subtle lighting. At our interview, Binoche's face is truly luminescent despite being scrubbed clean of make-up. Her attire of shapeless grey pants and crumpled white cotton button-up blouse is the very antithesis of red-carpet glamour. But, somehow, her understated demeanour pulsates with sex appeal.
Affectionately known in her native country as "La Binoche", she is France's highest-paid actress ever. Working only when she finds a film truly fascinating is a gamble that has paid off. "As actors, we're so privileged to do what we do and to give to the world and to choose the subject we want to say to the world. Movies are an invaluable medium in which to touch people's sensibilities. As actors, we are responsible in the same way as healers or doctors, in specifically putting question marks inside people's lives. I want to show the world how much potential we have as humans," she says.
She prefers to work on independent movies in France, but her mainstream films have always been interesting choices, from John Boorman's apartheid film In My Country and Lasse Hallstrom's romance Chocolat (with Johnny Depp) to Louis Malle's Damage , starring as a woman embroiled in a forbidden love affair with Jeremy Irons's married British MP.
The original backers of The English Patient allegedly wanted Demi Moore to star. All Binoche will say is: "I was Anthony Minghella's choice. It was a small movie at the time, and it became a big movie because of its success but not while we were making it. Two weeks before shooting, Fox actually stopped it, so we were completely orphaned. Then Harvey Weinstein took over the project because he was in love with it.
"Making money has never been my goal. If you're making films for money, I think there's a sickness because money can't fulfil you. When you have a house, if you have a second house, you can't live in both. And if I say yes to a film, it's only because I love the project."
Binoche fell in love with Dan in Real Life's bittersweet script despite the fact that she'd never heard of her co-stars Steve Carell and Dane Cook. "I did not know them, not even Steve, so Steve was not the attraction to the film for me. The only reason I chose to do the film was because I thought there was something unique about it. Like in the great Lubitsch or Capra films, there's a layer of truth, of everyday existence, creating feelings you recognise in this story, and also because I had seen and enjoyed director Peter Hedges' other film Pieces of April. And I was convinced after meeting him that this could be a great experience.
"In France, I hadn't seen anything by Steve Carell. You know, The 40 Year Old Virgin didn't work, and The Office, we didn't quite get it [Carell starred in the American version]," she continues. "So we only really started to notice him with Little Miss Sunshine [in which he played a suicidal Proust scholar]. But now that I know him, I'm really fond of him.
"People have asked a lot what it is like for me to work with two comedians. And I feel like asking them, 'Well, how does it feel for them to work with a dramatic actress?' It was like two different worlds that have to meet, and it was a very serious set. There was very little improv."
Carell will admit to having been petrified at meeting Binoche for the first time. "Ah, men... They can be so silly!" she says, laughing. "My rhythm, acting-wise, is very different from one movie to the next. After Dan in Real Life, I made three films at home in Paris, so I was able to be with my kids all the time."
Binoche's mother, also an actress, did everything to dissuade her as a teenager from following in her footsteps, but Binoche has no such qualms regarding her own children. "My mother did not want me to be an actress because she was frightened that I would struggle. With my own children, I want them to do what they want to do. I want them to be happy and to recognise what they are here for. What is their road? That is what I wish for them. Everybody is different, and only time will tell where their futures lie. I think that when children can recognise a passion in their lives, then they are already saved. Because they are going to go through difficulties, but if they have a passion, it's a way to stabilise themselves.
"Already my son is dating but I give him no rules. I am not trying to control him. He does not even want to talk about it too much. It is more about giving him space. It is not easy. I think you learn with them and he shows me when I am interfering too much and I understand his need to separate from his mother. For a boy, it is very important for him."
When not mothering or filming, Binoche indulges her passion for travel. "Two years ago, I took a year off when I decided not to work because nothing really took me. I think we're here to transform ourselves, and not just to take something for the money.
"In my time off, I travelled quite a lot. I was in Budapest and then Peru, where I walked in the mountains, and then to Iran, where I spent some time with a friend who showed me around Tehran. I thought they were fantastic people. And the women, even though they have to wear the scarf, they are like Italian women. They rule the house – at least inside.
"Tehran was so full of life. If you read a little about where they come from, their history is very rich. Their philosophers and mystics of the Middle Ages; it is an immensely perceptive world. We are ignorant regarding the influence the philosophers afterwards in Europe."
Ask Juliette Binoche for her own philosophy on life, and she smiles as though reading from a well-rehearsed script. "To be true. To take risks. To love the shadows as well as the light. To find your task, to recognise your task and to be active. That's enough, right?"
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