What brings one of the most acclaimed French actresses in the world to a Hollywood blockbuster? It’s a question that’s hard to avoid when thinking about Juliette Binoche. The Oscar winner has been a muse for Olivier Assayas, Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Haneke. She’s worked with Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax and Krzysztof Kieślowski. And yet, rather strangely, she has popped up in American tentpoles like “Godzilla” and “Ghost in the Shell” in recent years.
If you think Hollywood money is the draw, then you simply don’t know Binoche. The actress could’ve gone blockbuster 24 years ago when Steven Spielberg pursued her for “Jurassic Park.” She turned him down to work with Kieślowski on “Three Colours: Blue.” Spielberg would cast Laura Dern. Binoche would win the César Award for Best Actress. Denying a heavyweight like Spielberg in 1993 was a risky move that paid off, and it’s become clear Binoche has refused to play it safe in the decades since.
“It’s really just all about the person, the director and what they want from the character and how they want to explore that,” Binoche said to IndieWire about picking her roles. “Male director or female, American or French, all these things have never been a factor. It’s the person.”
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With “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, Hollywood had nothing to do with bringing Binoche on board. It was director Rupert Sanders, who wanted an actress strong enough to give his CGI-driven spectacle a sense of humanity. The character, Dr. Ouelet, has a complex surrogate mother-daughter relationship with Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg, and it’s in playing with the dynamic Sanders envisioned that Binoche gained interest.
Bruno Dumont has another reason for why Binoche’s decision making is a constant surprise. The French filmmaker has worked with her twice — first on “Camille Claudel 1915” and now the surrealist “Slack Bay,” currently in limited release — and he has found that she is enticed by new experiences. It’s not the size of the role or the industry she’s working in, it’s the chance to push herself in a new direction.
“[Her acting needs to go] beyond what she’s been doing, and what she herself is even interested in,” Dumont said over email. “She’s interested in pushing herself further, so that [the role] is both a new way of acting for her as well as what the audience is going to be seeing. It’s very satisfying because it represents growth for her as an actor.”
“Pushing herself further” is exactly what Binoche is up to in “Slack Bay,” Dumont’s madcap comedy that mixes the surrealism of Buñuel with the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy. If you thought the sight of Binoche in a Hollywood blockbuster was surprising, just wait until you see her grand introduction as Aude Van Peteghem, an eccentric member of an affluent family with many an unusual secret.
Speaking with a high-pitched squeal, Binoche feels like she’s been dropped in from a flamboyant comedic opera. For audiences who have grown accustomed to the actress’ introspective character work, “Slack Bay” might be the most radical they’ve ever seen her. Binoche is rarely considered a comedic actress, but going beyond her safe space is essential.
“The art of exploring the new and bringing that to life is the joy of being an actor,” Binoche said. “Bruno had written the role in such a way that it needed to be strong and different from anything I’ve ever done. You don’t approach comedy any differently than drama really, but it’s about turning up the volume. It made me love the extroverted version of myself.”
The role also checked off Binoche’s guiding principle that the director is everything. The comedy of “Slack Bay” was a major departure for Dumont as well, and the two didn’t see eye-to-eye on how to approach it. Dumont openly admits he and Binoche “agree about nothing.” Whereas Dumont was focused on taking the comedy to a “dangerous place,” Binoche was intent on holding on to the drama at the core of her character’s aloofness.
“Bruno does not like these psychological or emotional places,” Binoche said. “Which is fine. The actor doesn’t need the director to understand everything. When you’re acting, you’ve got to know where it comes from. Even though there is a behavior that is beyond comprehension to [this character], this ridiculousness, it’s really to hide her suffering. That’s where you have to start, this real human place, and then you turn up the volume. It’s about layers.”
“As an actor, you have to take responsibility for the humanity of your role,” she continued. “Whether the director or other people see it or not, that’s your responsibility.”
Dumont wasn’t concerned with this dimension of the character , but he’s not the kind of director to deny his actor the opportunity to dig in. By giving Binoche the freedom to explore Aude Van Peteghem on her own terms, he created a role too irresistible for Binoche to ignore. “I really fought hard for this one, to show Bruno I could handle it,” she said. “I really wanted it, and he let me do what he felt I needed to do with the role.”
So what makes an acclaimed French actresses sign up for a Hollywood blockbuster? It’s the same thing that makes her do a French comedy after years of perfecting the art of drama, or choose a Polish art house drama over a Spielberg big-budget extravaganza. It’s also the very thing that’ll set the course for her future, which already includes a return trip to Cannes this May with Claire Denis’ “Dark Glasses.”
“She has a natural authority. She trusts your craft and intuition,” Binoche said about working with the 71-year-old French icon. “She’s not trying to manipulate you. It was really freeing, while still knowing she was in complete control.”
At the same time, Binoche’s willingness to take risks on different filmmaking visions seems to be a key ingredient to her ongoing success.
“It’s rare that a star of her level is willing to [take those chances],” Dumont said, “to really throw herself into these kinds of adventures that are really new for her, and to really enter into the whole concept of the character that she’s playing. Many times with a big star that doesn’t happen. With Juliette, it does.”