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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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"Elles"
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.

"Elles"
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






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