Q&A: Juliette Binoche Takes the Existential Route in “Elles”

Q&A: Juliette Binoche Takes the Existential Route in “Elles”
What's it all about?: Juliette Binoche in “Elles”
(Courtesy Elles)

In Polish filmmaker Malgolska Szumowska’s Tribeca-screened “Elles,” which opened yesterday, Juliette Binoche gives one of her most radically strung-out and existentially anguished performances as a conscientious Elle reporter, Anne, who’s neglected by her workaholic husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), ignored by her youngest son, and insulted by the teenage one, who sneers: “I don’t want to be like you.” (Watch the trailer below.) It’s little wonder, given her alienation, that she becomes jealous of the independent-minded, sexually coveted young subjects of her latest story, the student prostitutes Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Their freedom and security, of course, is as illusory as Anne’s materialistically circumscribed bourgeois family life.

Binoche is at the top of her game here: perhaps no other major actress has made the act of masturbation seem so lonely and desensitizing. And when, near the end of the film, Anne’s sexual advance is rejected by the husband, one can hear the thought resounding in her head: What’s the point of it all?

At 48, Binoche’s melancholy beauty, ruffled though it often is, and her piercing presence illuminate her films no less than they did when she was working with Léos Carax (“Bad Blood,” “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf”) and Philip Kaufman (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) a quarter-century ago or winning an Oscar (“The English Patient”) in 1996. Great directors have continued to demand her: Michael Haneke (“Caché), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (“The Flight of the Red Balloon”), Abbas Kiarostami (“Certified Copy”), and now David Cronenberg (the 2012 Cannes entry “Cosmopolis”). And, if that’s not enough, she’s a renaissance woman – stage actress, dancer, painter.

ARTINFO sat down for an interview with Binoche last Monday. She wore a white jacket, sipped café au lait, and punctuated her comments with unexpectedly raucous laughter.

Was the key to “Elles” for you the analogy it makes between prostitution and the life of a married working mother – the idea that all women are prostituted?
No [laughs]. I don’t think my character is prostituted. Making dinner for her husband is a choice. Toward the end when she’s trying this blowjob on her husband and it’s failing, I think it’s out of desperation because she doesn’t know how to handle the emotions she’s going through. She’s tormented by this feeling that she’s living in an ivory tower, having the husband, the two kids, the furniture, the best TV, this life that seems to be working so well, and being structured and happy working for Elle. Yet inside she’s feeling empty and doesn’t understand why the people in this beautiful family are not interacting with her and aren’t able to understand each other or be together. She’s going through this huge melancholic time where she knows the joy is there somewhere, but she doesn’t know how to reach it, and she’s lost in these big questions: What is love? What is sex? What is my body? Do I just need money to find something that fulfils me?

What society brings to us through advertisements and their idea of happiness feels like lies, and she’s become aware of that. It’s not easy to go through because you have to let go of illusions. The castle you’ve built in your mind is not in reality what it seems. Meeting those young women, who seem to be so happy at the beginning, makes her envious while she despises them at the same time. At the end she feels close to them, and that’s surprising for her. She feels as lost as they are, but she understands that they feel liberated, happy or not, even though they go through hell, they face danger, they’re humiliated, and they’re not free.

At the dinner party she puts on for her husband’s business associates, she looks round and sees instead some of the men who are the prostitutes’ clients. Doesn’t that imply that all men are potential exploiters of women?
Yeah, but you don’t have the beast and the victim. Both are working together. It’s like alcoholics and codependents. I think it’s more that. To her, the dinner party is unbearable. The conversation is empty. It’s a game she doesn’t want to play anymore, which is why she leaves. The film is working on different levels, because you are also being touched by those men seeing those young girls. Some of the men can’t have sex, but at least they can have warmth and tenderness, so it’s like a special relationship. There’s a humanity in all this, and you feel that maybe in prostitution there’s less war. It’s as if prostitutes become like nuns, the saviors of the world.

Can prostitution be defended?
That’s a huge question. In the Sumerian tradition, Inanna, the Goddess of Love was a prostitute, and men would go to her to transform and become aware of another world through pleasure.

But you can’t attach much spiritual value to being a prostitute in modern-day Paris, can you?
I don’t think you can attach this kind of thing to one country. It’s a universal issue.

I thought the two actresses who played the prostitutes were very good. How did working with them affect you? Was playing their witness painful in some ways?
It was certainly painful not being able to see what they were doing in their scenes. I’d read their scenes in the script and tried to imagine how I would relate to them, but I don’t think they were shot yet, so I had relate to them in my imagination. Of course, we had to discuss with the director how painful or disturbing it all was for my character in terms of her everyday life. The two worlds are so contradictory, but once she’s taken in all the details of their lives you see how it affects her when she’s doing the washing or cooking. Her emotions are linked with the girls and what they provoke in her. Her anger and need rise to the surface.

That brings us back to what you were saying at the start about her behaving like a prostitute with her husband near the end of the film.
I wouldn’t put it that way. I think she’s so lost she doesn’t know how to reach him. He’s as desperate as she is because he doesn’t want [sex] like that. First of all, she’s seen what’s on his computer [pornography]. Then, she was the one who walked out on the dinner party. And she’s drunk. So it’s disturbing for him. That’s why you need the breakfast scene at the end, because you need a little hope. Having breakfast with your family is one of those things that fulfils you. But it doesn’t always match with our need for individuality and independence and freedom. You know, what’s the equilibrium between my growing as an individual and yet being able to grow and evolve in the family?

Were you satisfied with your work in the film?
This word “satisfaction” is very hard for an actor, because there’s always take after take after take, so there’s always an idea of growing, and it never stops. The achievement comes when sometimes you reach inside yourself, and there’s a light that goes on, but you don’t know why. And you feel, OK, I can leave that scene like this. Satisfaction doesn’t come though pleasure but through the revelation of something. Then you’re free again.

You do a number of scenes without makeup and the light is harsh on you.
That was a choice of the director and the cinematographer. They wanted to show the contrast between myself and the young girls, but I agreed with it because if you didn’t have the contrast, you didn’t have the story. Also, I pushed my belly up on purpose doing pilates – normally it has to be flat – because my character’s a woman who’s trying hard, but doesn’t get it  [laughs]. I love these kinds of challenges. They’re private and they’re a little wicked, because they’re like winks. It’s fun because you’re playing against the rules.

I’ve seen a little bit of you in “Cosmopolis.” You’re in the car, wearing a little black dress, making out with Robert Pattinson. Who do you play?
I play an art dealer who’s been a lover of Robert Pattinson’s character for a few years. Throughout the whole film she has this kind of sexual moment that Cronenberg always puts in his films. Then at the end she’s feeling alone and left out. I don’t know how long the scene is – maybe four minutes – but it’s like a lifetime, a relationship kind of starting and ending.

Was it exciting working with Cronenberg?
Yes, though it was only two days shooting. It’s always interesting wondering whether you’re being taken into a film, or whether you’re taking the director into it. When you work with great directors, you never know who starts it. Being stuck in a limo means you have to use your imagination. So Cronenberg played Robert in one spot and after that he let me do what I wanted, and when he was satisfied we stuck with that. He was precise language-wise, but otherwise he let me be, emotionally. It was good.

You’re currently doing Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel?
I’ve just finished. It follows on from the Bruno Nuytten film with Isabelle Adjani. It’s three days of Camille Claudel’s life in the asylum waiting for her brother to visit. And it was a lifetime experience for me.

Dumont can be quite ascetic…
But also raw and primitive in relationship to the body and in the relationship between men and women.

Did he put you through that?

No, thank God, because it’s Camille Claudel! [laughs]

What are your memories of making “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” with Léos Carax?
It was a journey, because the film took a long time to make and we had to believe we could finish it when nobody wanted to help us. It was a struggle, and physically very demanding. But it was also a great time of creation. I thought we’d never finish it. It wasn’t the filming that was hard, it was the waiting between the shooting. I had to create a whole world to survive it. So during the first stop, which was nine months, I was painting, having singing lessons, English lessons, dancing, reading a lot, and living my everyday life. The second time we had to stop, for nine months again, it was harder. I thought, “I can’t do what I did last year.”

It’s one of the great love stories of the last thirty years.

Was doing your dance performance, “In-I,” an important artistic step?
I didn’t know anything before I started. I don’t know if it was important or a disaster or what [laughs]. What was important was to have the courage to do it. Every night was a big question, “Am I able to go through with it? Am I going to break something? Am I, emotionally and physically, going to be able to sustain it until the end of the show?” Before New York, we stopped for five months and then rehearsed three days before the show – it was crazy to do that. Co-creating was wonderful and I think we had some wonderful performances. I had ups and downs with [dance partner and choreographer] Akram Khan. He was interested in emotions, I was interested in movement, and so we questioned, “If you start with an emotion, how is the movement?" Most of the ballet you see has a lack of emotions and the movement is not always expressive. Then there was the contrast between us: different sexes, different experiences, different skin colors. I was facing a foreigner, as he was. So it was already a huge journey.

Has it affected your acting at all?
Definitely. Somehow I cannot be frightened because, in the dance, I had to reach for things that I imagined were impossible. Starting dance at 43 makes you think, “What kind of mind do you have?” We did it a hundred times in 11 different countries and after that...I can jump anywhere! Actually, Camille Claudet was something like this because we decided to do it with no make up, no hair styling, just raw, and it was very freeing. I could cry as much as I wanted and it didn’t matter [laughs]. The last time I had this kind of experience as an actor was with [Krzysztof] Kie?lowski on “Blue,” because the ability of Dumont to film the silence and space in the soul makes it a spiritual experience.  

"Elles" trailer: