Juliette Binoche: 'I’m not scared to be more and more ridiculous'

The actress is making the leap from art house movie theatres and the stage to big budget blockbusters such as Ghost in the Shell, which she just finished filming alongside Scarlett Johansson

Juliette Binoche attends the ‘Slack Bay’ photocall at the 69th Cannes Film Festival
Juliette Binoche attends the ‘Slack Bay’ photocall at the 69th Cannes Film Festival

Juliette Binoche is jumping from art house movie theatres and the stage to big budget blockbusters and blaming her children for the move. The actress has just completed shooting the big budget live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, alongside Scarlett Johansson.

The 52-year-old has two children, a 22-year-old son, Raphaēl, with professional scuba diver, André Halle and a 16-year-old daughter, Hana, with actor Benoît Magimel. They have got to the age where they are having a say over her career.

“My children asked me to go and make Godzilla and Ghost in the Shell. Ghost was shot in New Zealand and I felt like being away for a month-and-a-half on the other side of the world was too much, especially after I’d been away touring Antigone on stage, and I felt like it was too long a trip, and they couldn’t come. But they gave me permission.”

It was also the first time that she has got to make a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. Godzilla doesn’t really count because her character lasted five minutes before being killed off. “It’s a new world, and I love having a peek into new worlds.”

Ghost in the Shell is based on a Japanese manga comic. The animated stories featured a fictional counter-cyberterrorist organisation, Public Security Section 9, operating in the middle of the 21st Century in Japan. There have been several popular animated screen adaptations, and now we have the live-action version.

But Binoche hasn’t forgotten her roots either. The Cannes Film Festival saw the debut of her new film, Slack Bay, which sees her reunite with French auteur Bruno Dumont, with whom she made Camille Claudel 1915 in 2013. Slack Bay is also set in the early 20th Century, 1910 to be precise, but could not be more different from the austere biopic on the French sculpture and graphic artist who suffered from schizophrenia. Slack Bay is a comedy featuring cannibalism and is about the madness of the bourgeoisie.

“I know the French bourgeoisie, so I just picked up things that I’ve noticed,” recounts Binoche. “I explored the humour of it and mocking myself as being a drama actress, or being a tragic actress, or being spiritual and going into layers and just generally laughing at yourself.”

Often referred to as La Binoche, the actress is fully aware of her own iconic status. She was particularly attracted to Slack Bay because Dumont also encouraged the actors to perform like characters from early French cinema. They give big performances that were more common in the silent age. Her character, who comes in like a hurricane half way through the movie, is a performance based on Cécile Sorel, a member of the Comédie-Française, whose most famous film role was starring in a 1909 version of La Tosca. “There was an interview with her in a program and I looked at it over and over again, and there was a lot to take from her.”

Other inspirations were closer to home: “My father was a mime artist, and he did shows wearing masks and I was used to imitating him. I was 10 years old and performing sketches with my friends, so it was part of me, I was more extroverted than introverted. I wanted to be in my father’s shoes and make people laugh.”

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Nonetheless, her early career took her to drama. She acted for Jean-Luc Godard in Hail Mary (1985), but it was her stellar work with French enfant terrible Leos Carax that brought her international fame There was the incredible scene dancing to David Bowie’s Modern Love in Mauvais Sang, where she played a femme fatale, and then came the astonishing turn as a homeless woman losing her sight in les amants du Pont-neuf (1991), a film that ensured that the pedestrian bridge would become one of the most romantic spots in the world.

Away from Carax, her talent and beauty bowled over Daniel Day Lewis in the sexy adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). She won an Oscar in 1997 for Best Supporting Actress in The English Patient and was nominated for Best Actress in 2001 for her turn in Chocolat.

But she’s always secretly been hankering to do comedy. “The first films I saw were Charlie Chaplin films and they deeply imprinted on me. I could be laughing or in tears, and it made me feel alive. Maybe through time, I’m not scared to be more and more ridiculous. I believe the more you live, the better you are, there are perfumes coming out of your unconscious, because of what you experience in life.”

Although she says some parts of her life are as hectic as ever. “Relationships? I don’t think I’ve made a lot of progress on that. I had a relationship for 15 years – we stopped, we came back, we stopped and we came back – somehow because of that time separating and getting back together, it helps you to be less possessive. Life went by and I learned things, but changes? I think we are always the same inside.”

The actress never looks too far ahead. “I don’t have plans. I think the plan is already somewhere. I’m just following that plan.”

The actress has also had a surprising career as a dancer. In 2008 she performed a solo dance show, choreographed by Akram Khat at the National Theatre. The actress who had never danced professionally got decidedly mixed reviews for the show, IN-I. When I asked her why she would want to be judged as a dancer, she retorted, “You’re English. Why do you see it like this.” She then explains that as with her acting, it’s about taking risks. “It’s my need as a human being, of knowing myself, but also giving myself. We are alive, so let’s be alive, let’s explore, let’s share, lets move, let’s be.”

The dance theme continues as she also stars in, Polina, dancer sa vie, about a young dancer who wants to be accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet, but who has to cope with failure. Binoche plans a dance instructor in the film that will premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

The desire to dance, make comedies and appear in sci-fi movies is probably why Binoche has always been so good in the roles she chooses, as she is not afraid to fail, or perhaps more accurately, she doesn’t see her career as a being defined by success and failure. Her life is not a crescendo, where one beat leads to the next, but a beautiful form of free jazz, where the journey takes unexpected beautiful twists.

Polina, danser sa vie, plays at the Venice Film Festival. Ghost in the Shell is coming out in March 2017. Slack Bay will be screened later this year

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