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Juliette Binoche Talks About Her Personal Connection to 'Elles,' Masturbating on Film, and What Scares Her

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire April 27, 2012 at 10:54AM

It's easy to take Juliette Binoche for granted. Since winning her Oscar back in 1996 for her turn in Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient," the French actress hasn't struck a false note (there's a reason the French press refer to her as 'La Binoche'; the woman is a national treasure) with uncompromising and varied turns in a slew of critically acclaimed art-house darlings including Michael Haneke's "Cache," Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours," Hsiao-hsien Hou's "Flight of the Red Balloon," Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," and now "Elles," from Polish filmmaker on-the-rise Malgorzata Szumowska.
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Kino Lorber "Elles"

It's easy to take Juliette Binoche for granted.

Since winning her Oscar back in 1996 for her turn in Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient," the French actress hasn't struck a false note (there's a reason the French press refer to her as 'La Binoche'; the woman is a national treasure) with uncompromising and varied turns in a slew of critically acclaimed art-house darlings including Michael Haneke's "Cache," Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours," Hsiao-hsien Hou's "Flight of the Red Balloon," Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," and now "Elles," from Polish filmmaker on-the-rise Malgorzata Szumowska.

In "Elles," Binoche stars as Anne, a freelance journalist tasked with writing an article for ELLE magazine, about female college students working as prostitutes. Her interviews with two candid subjects lead Anne to question the relationships she has with the men in her life (namely her husband and her two sons), forcing her down a path that threatens to shake up her stable and very bourgeoisie existence.

Next up for Binoche is Bruno Dumont's biopic "Camille Claudel," which will see the actress playing the famed sculptor during her time spent in a mental asylym, and David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis," making its world premiere at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival.

Indiewire sat down with Binoche in New York, following "Elles"'s screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. [It opens today in select theaters, via Kino Lorber.]

I’m curious about your role as Camille Claudel. Have you already finished wrapping or are you taking a break now to do press for "Elles"?

No, no it’s finished. We finished two weeks ago.

Kino Lorber "Elles"
How did that experience go for you?

Fantastic. I felt like sculpting somebody. It was a great experience of jumping into it fully, and then after that getting nude inside.

The film takes place during her stay in the mental hospital?

Yes.

Is that how it differs from the film of the same name, starring Isabelle Adjani?

It’s almost the following of the other film.

Was playing Claudel more freeing for you than your work in "Elles," where you play such a repressed character, desperate for an escape from her everyday life?

Well, I wouldn’t compare it in that way because Camille Claudel was very much… she didn’t interact a lot with the handicapped [in the asylum]. Camille needed to protect herself because she didn’t want to stay there. But about "Elles"… I mean, what happens is that she’s gradually throughout this day adding, adding, adding inside. And it gets into a crisis once she goes away. It’s like she can’t stand it anymore. She can’t stand the lies anymore, the kind of standard of behavior that society requires because she’s been scratching a little bit and seeing her solitude, the lack of interaction with her family -- even though it seems everything is so strongly put together and achieved.

She has the house, she has the husband, she has the children, she has the work, she has the furniture, she has the space, blah blah blah. But she is not feeling fulfilled. She's envious in a way of those young girls’ freedom, and yet understanding it’s not that freeing, it’s damaging.

"I had to fight to be respected. I was lucky to recognize my passion and lucky to get a job quite early on compared to others. It’s a struggle; you can never forget that."
"Elles" challenged me as viewer. From the outset, I felt it glamorized prostitution in some ways. I went into "Elles" thinking it was going to take a moral stance and judge the women for how they make a living, but it doesn’t.

Because you have to understand the motivations of those young girls. It seems from the outside, that they want to have chic things, they want to have the items of luxury and all that, but there’s a gradual realization that it’s not that. The lack of protection, the lack of being looked after is the real issue.

Also, the state help is not strong enough for students who don’t have money. So they cannot study with the money that’s been given so that means they have to work. And the work while you study is almost impossible, because you have to have hours to study, you have to have hours to take courses, and you have to have your mind and physical ability. And when you work, it’s draining.

It makes me think. The film makes me think. But also, I went through a stage of being a student, so I know the difficulty of it. I know the struggle of it. I didn’t have state support, didn’t have family support. So I worked as a cashier for a while. And then I was doing small jobs as an actor and didn’t feel always respected. I had to fight to be respected. I was lucky to recognize my passion and lucky to get a job quite early on compared to others. It’s a struggle; you can never forget that.

Did you know anybody who had gone through a similar experience?

I had a girlfriend who was courting.

Are you still close with her?

No, I lost track of her.

Kino Lorber "Elles"
Was it knowing her that led you to want to make "Elles"?

No, it was because there was a documentary that was made during the writing of the script and I watched it. The producer [of "Elles"] wanted to express the reality of the situation. The [documentary] director actually interviewed two girls and followed them through some months in order to get real feedback from them. It’s surprising in this documentary, that from the outside it seems everything’s fine. They live nicely the way they choose. For one of them, it felt like a drug. You would take alcohol, they would take sex. So the body is part of a sort of a way of escaping something else; escaping an emotion in a way. The other girl actually, at the end of the filming of the documentary, quit. The documentary made her realize what she was doing.

That outcome recalls the scene where one of the prostitutes tears up a photo a clients takes of her.

It catches something inside her beyond that she cannot comprehend yet, but there’s something she can’t stand.

Following the world premiere of "Elles" in Toronto, journalists and critics have harped on your masturbation scene that occurs near the end of the film. Is it true that the director had you watch 60 or so online videos of women climaxing in order to prepare?

She gave me some that she made me watch [laughs] -- I wanted to see it! I had to make the scene, so you want to work on it because that’s your responsibility as an actor. And so she gave me a DVD of 40 girls she selected.

They weren't pornographic clips?

No, you just see the face. It’s like a painting; it’s like a baby’s birth. You can see somebody dying at the same time; or going through a labyrinth of emotions; letting go, not letting go; reaching, not reaching. Some feel like it’s very natural. Some feel like a struggle.

What I picked up is the death and the birth. Because as an artist, I like to be — especially when you have to do those kinds of scenes which are not easy to make —creative in order to lift it. It's not being shot like a documentary. But at the same time when we shot, I didn’t want to think about how it looked, because it would not be truthful that way. Malgorzata wanted to go into the other room and see the monitor and I said, “No, you wrote the scene. You stay with me and you tell me all the layers you want.” And we did it together. We laughed a lot, actually.

Kino Lorber "Elles"
I feel like a lot of actors would express some kind of fear at tackling a scene like that. But you don’t seem to have that.

Because I lift it to an art form. And if I have the birth and the death, I’m already interested. And also because it’s not about myself, it’s also telling a story and I have to go through a vision.

So what does scare you as a performer?

[Laughs] Habit would scare me. Of being sure of yourself would scare me. Not being frightened would scare me. Not working with intelligent people would scare me. [Laughs] Because you need the others. You need vision when you’re an actor. In order to collaborate, in order to be with, in order to lift it. So you just pray that you’re going to have the space, you’re going to have the ears and the eyes that are going to allow you to do it. When you have somebody who thinks he’s going to manipulate you to get what he wants, that becomes a little boring. It becomes limiting. I like to work with the person, not against the person.

What do you look for in a director?

I believe very much in the connection you get with someone’s presence. Two bodies in the same room with a camera brings a sort of attention that belongs only between those two people. So the actor doesn’t have to fabricate on his own. It’s the ears and the eyes of the director and the presence that’s going to bring something out of the actor. So it’s more of a circle feeling and sharing feeling than hierarchy kind of relationship. Whether it’s the actor who has the power because he’s the star or whether it’s the director because he’s the star. It’s letting things happen in between that I’m attracted to.

A lot of actors would no doubt list the director's body of work as a reason for wanting to collaborate with them...

No, no. It's the present moment. It's about the person's qualities at the very moment I meet them.

So I'm curious... what are Michael Haneke's qualities?

[Laughs} A great sense of humor. He loves actors. Because he knows how much it requires, and how much courage we have. As an actor you move in or out of yourself, but after wrapping a film most of the time I feel changed by the subject matter and by the experience. Haneke's quality is a great sense of humor. He's quite critical. I don't always get comfortable with him, but there's an intelligence there that I love. We can talk quite intimately. I feel close to him, as well as I feel very far from him.

Like his films in many ways.

Yeah, that's true.

This article is related to: Interviews, Juliette Binoche, Elles, Michael Haneke, Tribeca Film Festival