Juliette Binoche. The name alone brings connotations of a very particular brand of imperious arthouse cinema. Seeing it in the opening credits is a near guarantor of a cerebral viewing experience; a patent by which any filmmaker adds instant credibility and lustre to their project. But is this simplification of the idea of ‘Juliette Binoche’ entirely fair? And just how has she managed to compile arguably the finest CV of any current actor? If you don’t believe me on the last fact, here’s just a quick resumé of Binoche’s directorial collaborations: Jean-Luc Godard, André Téchiné, Philip Kaufman, Léos Carax, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, Abbas Kiarostami, Bruno Dumont, and, of course, with Let the Sunshine In due out in the UK this weekend, Claire Denis.
Binoche has never really endured a fallow period – a luxury rarely afforded to other female actors establishing themselves in their youth and, in part, due to their beauty. This could be due to any number of factors: working predominantly in a national cinema that actually venerates the stories of women across the age-range; the sense that the young Binoche’s aesthetic extended beyond the fleeting appeal of youthfulness and contained an enduring maturity and sophistication; her tenaciousness and sense of agency in forging her own career; and the obvious point that Binoche is such an impeccable and assured dramatic actor.
Acting as a harbinger for where Binoche’s career was set to go, one of her first performances came as a young twentysomething in Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary (1985), before earning her first major plaudits in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous of the same year. Binoche soon came to the attention of an international audience in Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of the Milan Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), but her most enduring performance around the turn of the decade was in Léos Carax’s exceptional Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991).
In a career that has had very few setbacks, one of Binoche’s most contentious performances was in Peter Kosminsky’s radical adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ – the film’s full, unwieldly title is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1992) – where Binoche was cast in the dual role of Catherine Earnshaw and her daughter, Cathy Linton. Audiences and critics were never able to look past the sheer incongruity of these classic Yorkshire heroines being played by an actress who could barely suppress her distinct French accent, but, in retrospect, the film deserves greater scrutiny than this hysterical focus on what was, in essence, a superficial anomaly.
Casting the same actress as the two Cathys (all Binoche affected was a change of hair colour) really accentuated the novel’s haunting notion of the generations passing down their burdens and sins, and Binoche’s chemistry with Ralph Fiennes’ Heathcliff was rather affecting – a sly foreshadowing of their more critically validated collaboration to come in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996). Binoche’s role in Minghella’s film as the nurse caring for Fiennes’ burnt patient in the dying embers of the Second World War even won Binoche a Best Supporting Actress award at both the Oscars and the Baftas – an irony Binoche commented on when, in her Bafta acceptance speech, she recalled the derision of her performance in Wuthering Heights some four years before: “I thought England didn’t like me!”
By the time of The English Patient, and in spite of Wuthering Heights, Binoche had fully established herself as an international star; even having some of Hollywood’s biggest players at her beck and call. Steven Spielberg was desperate to cast her in Jurassic Park (1993), but she made a decision that summed up her impeccable taste and innate cinephilia when she chose instead to take the lead in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993). The first of Kieślowski’s three treatises on the theme of the French tricolore, Binoche’s performance as a young woman who embarks on a profound journey of rebirth after the tragic death of her husband and children, has entered the annals as one of modern cinema’s finest and most iconic of performances.
Since her 1997 Oscar, Binoche has worked incessantly, building up one of contemporary cinema’s finest CVs. Although generally prioritising collaborations with her medium’s finest practitioners, Binoche is not above dipping her toe in the Hollywood pond – credits as arbitrary as the Steve Carrell vehicle, Dan in Real Life (2007), and Gareth Edward’s Godzilla (2014), attest to that.
Picking Binoche’s most impressive work since her Three Colours: Blue opus is quite some challenge. She was one of Michael Haneke’s key players in his exceptional bourgeois deconstructions, Code Unknown (2000) and Hidden (2005); she has featured in two of the finest films of the decade so far – Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); but perhaps her greatest performance was in the little gem released in 2010 by the late, great Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy.
What initially seemed a sly little travelogue set in Tuscany, where Binoche’s tour guide accompanies William Shimell’s art critic around various sights, actually morphed into a richly discursive treatise on all matters of authenticity and artifice (think a hyper-cerebral Before Sunset). As the film progresses, the context of the relationship between Binoche and Shimell’s characters appears to change. Have they met before? Is she not just a helper, but also a fan? Are they even a couple in the throes of some crisis? At the centre of it all is Binoche – a rare actress that has the necessary allure and magnetism that all the great screen icons possess, but with a real depth of intelligence, emotion and vulnerability too. Qualities that will invariably have cinema’s finest filmmakers courting her service for some time to come.