If there’s one theme running through Juliette Binoche’s impressive and varied resume, it’s her desire to confound preconceived notions about the predominantly challenging women she portrays. That’s true of her latest film, “Elles” (April 27) in which she plays an investigative journalist and mother juggling domestic routines while toiling on an expose about student prostitutes. As a pair of interviewees open up about experiences that range from pathetic to perverse to dangerous, she ends up questioning her own comfortable Parisian life and marriage. I caught up with the French actress at the Berlin Film Festival:
Matt Mueller: Do you think ‘Elles’ glamourises prostitution in any way?
Juliette Binoche: No, not at all. In the beginning, the girls talk about it in a liberated way. They’re okay with it, it’s their choice, they get pleasure out of it. And then you understand that it’s not as simple as that. It’s the challenge of the film – it doesn’t give you solutions. Magoshka [Szumowska], the director, wanted the spectator to feel some desire, and yet be cut up about the situation. It’s what Haneke does in his films: he puts you in a corner where you feel aggressive and asks you to think about why.
MM: Are there similarities between the two directors?
JB: In a way there’s some connection. But Magoshka has a strength and wildness like Cassavetes. She likes the confrontations of the characters. Haneke has more distance.
MM: You have a lot more filmmaking experience than her. Did you feel like you had to step in and be more involved?
No, my experience has nothing to do with creation, I don’t think, even though maturity is helpful. In a creation process, there’s an intuition that takes you and if it’s nourished with awareness and experience, it’s great. But a director could be 20 years old and an actor 60, or vice versa; it doesn’t matter. It’s about connecting sensibility and energy together, and having a vision that goes together and anchors the film as you go along.
MM: Your character takes a cerebral approach to the subject in the beginning and then becomes deeply involved emotionally…
JB: It was interesting for me to play that because Magoshka and the DP wanted to film me in a different way than I’ve been filmed in the past. Seeing me as a wreck, like I’d been working the whole night and am tired and fed up with myself. It’s challenging as an actor to let go but I had some pleasure out of it too. To not have the effort of having to present myself is quite liberating.
MM: Can we talk about your masturbation scene? It was reminiscent of a scene in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence”…
JB: I didn’t know there was a masturbation scene in a Bergman film! I love Bergman, he’s my hero. There are jump cuts in our scene, which makes people think that I did it for real! When it came to the day of shooting it, Magoshka wanted to go somewhere else and watch on the monitor and let me do whatever I wanted to do. I said, “No way, you stay with me and you tell me all the stages you want. You wrote it so you face it, as I have to face it myself.” I had it in my mind that it should be like a painting, with expressions of birth and agony.
MM: You’re about to play Camille Claudel for Bruno Dumont, focusing on her years in a mental hospital. Are you emotionally prepared?
JB: We’re going to use only her letters so it will be all her words. It’s so extreme as a situation and she’s a real creator so how come she stopped creating? It’s a very painful situation to explore so I feel like it’s the most difficult part I will have to play. All the layers are so deep. I don’t know if it’s frightening but the responsibility is big.
MM: What happens when you butt heads with a director? Does it happen very often?
JB: I’m very patient and always willing to try things but I have some resistance as well because I have my own vision. I have resistance sometimes because I see a director who’s freaking out and wants to have control and they sometimes anticipate about what I’m going to be doing or not. I hate that because, for me, real, truthful moments come from a place that I don’t know. If somebody was telling me, “You’re going to lift your face like this, you’re going to do this…” No! I don’t want to know. Just let me live it.
MM: Does that mean David Fincher would be your nightmare collaborator?
J.B.: You say that but Haneke is very precise and I’ve made two films with him. And the first time, I didn’t feel that at all. I was fascinated to see how much he knew about acting. The second time with Hidden, I felt he didn’t know anything! He was controlling and I didn’t like it at all. But he’s very precise and I love that about him because he has intelligence. He loves actors. He knows it’s hard, he has some compassion.
MM: Do you think roles of this complexity are only found now in European films, at least when it comes to older actresses?
JB: I think Meryl Streep is surviving quite well… For me, it’s just where I am. I chose to stay in Europe and work with a lot of foreign directors. It was my choice. I could have moved to America but I didn’t because this is my path. I like independence, I like creating my own world, not being in a system. There are more possibilities, I think.
MM: So when you do work in America, for instance on Dan In Real Life, what draws you over?
JB: It’s like a wink. It’s like, “Hi! Remember me?”
MM: Do you think other actors envy all these fruitful encounters you’re able to have with filmmakers from around the world?
JB: Edgar Ramirez said to me he’d like to have this kind of freedom. Even Clooney said something like that to me. George Clooney is trying his own way but he’s struggling too because he has to deal with America. Yet, if he has a foot in Europe, it’s not for nothing.
MM: Do you have plans in motion to work with any of your prior directors, for instance Haneke?
JB: Not really. Haneke is finishing his film now, and I only do two films a year… ‘Elles’, I did a year and a half ago. ‘La Vie D’Une Autre’, I did last year with Sylvie Testud. I did ‘Cosmopolis’ with Cronenberg last year although I only worked three days on that. I did a play at the Avignon Festival, and then I did ‘A Monkey On My Shoulder’ with Marion Laine and Edgar Ramirez in October and November.