French cinema icon Juliette Binoche opens up about her early days as a student, her career breakthrough, and why, with more than 60 films under her belt, “she’s not a workaholic”
The day before we meet, Juliette Binoche was in the French Alps. Today, she’s reclining in a suite in Berlin’s Hotel Marriott, dressed in scarlet trousers, a white blouse and eye-catching silver platforms. “We arrived last night at twelve,” she says, casually brushing off her hectic schedule. It’s been this way for four decades now, ever since she blew up at the Cannes Film Festival as a 21 year-old, starring in 1985’s Rendez-vous as—guess what?—a would-be actress. The film was a sensation and "La Binoche", as the French call her, was born.
“Before that, people didn’t know me,” she reflects now. “I had roles here and there—with great directors, of course—but they didn’t really take off. You have to have the role in order to take off.” And take off she did. Almost immediately, people were fascinated with this enigmatic raven-haired ingénue. “After Rendez-vouz, when I started, somebody asked me about doing an autobiography of my life…when I was 21!” she reveals, incredulous at this preposterous notion. “Some people actually thought about it.”
Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis in © The Saul Zaentz Company film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Image © Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo
Instead, Binoche concentrated on an unassailable rise through the ranks of world cinema, working alongside Daniel Day-Lewis (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Jeremy Irons (Damage) and Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient)—the film that would win her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1997. Rather than succumb to Hollywood’s lure, bar the odd blockbuster, Binoche simply continued working with celebrated filmmakers from around the globe, cultivating a reputation as a risk-taker.
“For me, the risk is to repeat myself or get into a comfort zone that is not opening my horizons,” she says, sipping from her mint tea. In person, she’s friendly, playful even (a previous encounter of ours ended with her throwing a cushion at me)—a stark contrast to the tragic characters, like her grief-stricken musician in Three Colours: Blue, she’s embodied on screen. Yet she’s not above self-mockery; see her in the French show Call My Agent! where she is trying on a tight-fitting, feathery outfit. “I’ll lose five pounds before Cannes,” she snaps. “Then put on ten.”
"Binoche concentrated on an unassailable rise through the ranks of world cinema"
Now 58, there isn’t much this fearless artist extraordinaire hasn’t done. On stage, she starred with Akram Khan at London’s National Theatre in dance piece In-i. “When you’re not a dancer, then you see that you need courage, you need trust and you need an alchemy that is inside you that is going to take place,” she says. She also sang in the show It’s Almost Nothing, a tribute to Monique Andree Serf, and “would love” to film a musical. Which one? “I would never answer that,” she smiles. “A film is a connection of different people.” In other words, it’s about creative alchemy.
What Binoche is currently working on
Juliette Binoche in Between Two Worlds. Image © Christine Tamalet
Rarely does Binoche rest on her laurels. When we meet, she’s flown in from the Alpine set of Christophe Honoré’s autobiographical film Le Lycéen—“I’m playing his mother,” she grins, patently aware of what a minefield that is—to attend the premiere of Both Sides of the Blade, a Parisian-set marital drama by Claire Denis. Before either of those hit these shores, though, Binoche can be seen in Between Two Worlds, a riveting take on journalist Florence Aubenas’ non-fiction best-seller, The Night Cleaner.
Emmanuelle Carriere, the director of Between Two Worlds, calls her “tenacious” and it's hard to disagree. The film casts her as Marianne Winckler, a fictionalised take on Aubenas, who went undercover in northern France to investigate the brutal world of cleaning staff, working in dehumanising conditions for a pittance. In the film, Marianne befriends several other women, who relentlessly clean ferries that cross between France and England, enduring gruelling night shifts.
"Rarely does Binoche rest on her laurels"
When Binoche arrived on set, she had little time to prepare—with her sculptor father Jean-Marie Binoche desperately ill at the time (he later died, in July 2019, aged 86). “I was in a state of exhaustion. I was sick. I was losing my father. It was a combination of being in a sort of tunnel. And I thought that was the best state in a way. As they’re running around, walking kilometres to go do two hours work, or working very early in the morning before the light appears, or working very late at night…they’re in a state of urgency and exhaustion.”
Co-starring with non-professionals, all too familiar with this world of zero-hours contracts, Binoche was taken by the descriptions in the book of these service industry folk who felt invisible, ignored, overlooked. “They’re like cupboards,” she says, simply. “Not existing for others.” With passers-by barely paying them a glance or a kind word, “something human”, she wanted to show just how demoralising this can be. “That really was my need to make this film,” she says. “We de-humanise ourselves very quickly if we’re not paying attention.”
On her background in Paris
Binoche’s own bourgeoise background may be light years away from her co-stars, but it was an upbringing that gained her great empathy with others—surely, one of the most essential tools as an actor. Born in Paris, she and her sister Marion were initially sent to a Catholic boarding school by her mother, actress Monique Stalens, who’d split from Binoche’s father when their daughter was just four. She later attended a specialized arts school in Paris, before winning places at the National School of Dramatic Art of Paris and the Paris Conservatoire.
The English Patient with Juliette Binoche as Hana and Ralph Fiennes as Almásy © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Better yet, she found her independence early. “As a student, you’ve got to believe in your own path and creation as an actor,” she says. “Nobody is going to believe before you. Of course it was worrying my parents being an actress, because it was very uncertain. And being in theatre, they knew how much of a struggle it was. I had a little bit of help the first year, as a student, from my mother. She gave me some money to pay my theatre class, so at least that was done. And my first boyfriend was Italian, and he was very generous as well. So I didn’t have to find a place to live because I was living with him.”
After that “it was a struggle”, with Binoche scraping by a living working as a cashier in the department store BHV. Then she struck gold—a role in Hail Mary, a film by celebrated French director Jean-Luc Godard. “I had to see the head of the BHV and try to convince her to let me go. And she wouldn’t. She said, ‘You’ve started, and in a few years, you can go up in the shop and be a very important person.’ And I tried to say, ‘This is my passion. Working with Jean-Luc Godard, it’s quite something as an actor.’ So she said, ‘Good luck, but I’m just warning you, it’s a difficult job and you never know what you’re going to get!’”
"You've got to believe in your own path—nobody is going to believe before you"
Maybe it’s why Binoche never stops, though she denies that she’s forever bouncing from one film to the next. “Not at all,” she insists. “I don’t see myself as a workaholic. I see myself as passionate. That’s a different take on it. Creating gives you energy. And when you think you’re going to rest, [that’s when] you get tired!” Yet even she had to switch gears during the pandemic, which slowed down her prodigious work-rate. “The first year I went back to my stove!” she chuckles. “I had the kids at home, so I tried to be the best mother I could.”
Balancing acting and family life
Raphaël, 28—her son with professional scuba diver André Halle, and Hannah, 22—her daughter with actor Benoît Magimel—are both grown up now, but doubtless relished the chance to spend some quality time with their mother. “[It’s] important for me to allow those relationships that are challenging,” she says. “Children know how to push you and they have no fear of getting the truth or of their own needs, and that’s a challenge that is always interesting and pushes you into your limits…but that’s how you grow.”
Juliette Binoche promoting Both Sides of the Blade at the 72nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin,Germany, February 12, 2022 © Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo
As soon as she could, Binoche got back to the grind, heading to Mississippi to shoot upcoming film Paradise Highway, playing a truck driver who must smuggle a teenage girl to save her own brother. Co-starring with the legendary Morgan Freeman (“I was very excited!”), it’s a very different take on a traditional tale of love, she estimates. “My love for this little girl was a love story,” she says. “The love is what takes you [on the journey] in a way.”
She’s also coming up in The Staircase, a juicy true-crime drama starring Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife. Binoche plays Sophie Brunet, one of the editors on the Netflix docu-series of the same name that originally chronicled the case. For her, it’s a rare opportunity to work on an American-made limited TV series. “I had a lot of free time, which I never have usually. That was a big discovery! Wow, you’re being paid for not doing very much! It never happened to me!” Juliette Binoche taking it easy on set? Now that’s a first.
Between Two Worlds is now available through Amazon Prime.
Read more: Interview: Benedict Cumberbatch
Read more: What makes a successful film villain?
Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.