Juliette Binoche is radiant — there’s no better word to describe the French actress, who shows up to our interview beaming in a cream-colored suit and baby-pink dress shirt. Hers is the kind of presence that demands attention. In her latest film, the Claire Denis–directed Let the Sunshine In (currently in theaters), the camera is almost always fixated on her, often in close-up, as it follows Binoche’s character, Isabelle, falling in and out of relationships with various men. The intimate camerawork allows Binoche to be subtle in her emoting, especially in the way her face reacts to different situations. In this complicated study of love and the pursuit of it, Binoche gives us a protagonist who is relatable yet frustrating, desirable yet naïve, someone whose perseverance propels the plot and perhaps reflects the filmmaker’s own outlook on romance. (Denis uses the presence and music of Etta James — specifically “At Last” — as a motif throughout.)
Binoche spoke to the Voice last week about reuniting with Denis on her forthcoming sci-fi film High Life and what it was like to work with the late, great Abbas Kiarostami.
You’re one of my favorite actresses, and Claire Denis is one of my favorite directors. How did she ask you to be in this film?
She asked me to read the script and see if I wanted to do it. It was as simple as that. I didn’t see all the layers when I read the script quickly the first time, but as soon as we started getting into it, I could see the humor in it. That was good, because it’s a sort of a comic tragedy. This lady is always going into love with a lot of hope, with a sort of innocence. In a way, that is ageless: this need of jumping in, and yet not being frightened to be knocked out, in a way. Because you need courage to go back when you’ve been hurt already before.
It’s very relatable. Different people read this movie different ways. Some say it’s optimistic, others say it’s exhausting. How do you feel?
The first time I saw it, I laughed a lot. The second time I saw it, I didn’t laugh as much. I really saw the tragic side of it. But I could see the comedy the first time, so I think it depends on the mood you’re in and at what kind of stage you’re in in your love life.
But she’s alone, she’s taking care of a child by herself, she’s in a sort of a [needy] place. A need for not feeling alone anymore. And it seems that work doesn’t fulfill that need. But it’s interesting because I think that when you overcome that need, you’re not putting that need on a man, then you may have a chance to have a man. But when your need is so big of a void, you’re trying to resolve something in you, and anticipate things, or push things in with too much will. It can kill the other person’s freedom, in a way. So it’s an interesting reflection on love and relationships.
When I spoke with Denis, she said, “The pursuit of true love is never exhausting.” I was surprised to hear that from her.
Well, what does true love mean? The Greeks had many ways of describing love, from the baby sucking the breast to get the milk, [to] the agape, which is love beyond interest, spiritual love. So there are many layers, but what we often mix together is the need and the love. And that’s important to define, in a way, because we tend to mix it. Because the need grabs you, takes you in. But when you understand that, then it feels a little better understanding how the human structure is made. It helps to love someone without necessarily possessing the person.
There are three big things that we all go through: the need of possession, the need of power, and the need of enjoyment. But when you liberate yourself from those three big things, then love might come to you. And I think it’s so true that love comes to you more than you go to love. And allowing the love to work on you, be with you, and not always thinking that it’s a power thing …
I heard that you had a lot to do with selecting the wardrobe for your character, and making her very sexy.
That’s interesting Claire says that because she wanted to film a woman of desire. So the short skirts are her idea, some of the boots are her idea, and I was quite surprised. I thought maybe it’s a Joan of Arc of love, you know, that she’s going with courage into relationships with different men and trying to feel fulfilled and happy. But one day when we had lunch together, I was wearing this sweater, the black and red sweater and a white T-shirt. She said, “Oh, I want that.” So she took it. My way of dressing that day became Isabelle’s way of dressing.
Oh, I remember that outfit. Yeah, Claire said she wanted a lot of cleavage.
Yeah, that’s what she wanted. Absolutely. A woman of desire. And she was comparing the French woman to the American woman. That’s a French woman. And I never thought that way, but she had more of a clear idea about how she wanted it.
There’s a lot of Etta James in the movie; she’s your character’s idol, in a way. She’s sensitive and strong, and provides a musical anchor. Do you have an artist like that in your personal life?
I had a message from Claire saying, “Etta James: very important character for me for that film.” And she left a second message repeating the same thing. So I thought, “Why Etta James?” And then listening to her voice and reading about her life, I realized she went through dark love stories. She was a drug addict, but she always went to love with such courage. It was probably important for Claire because it was related to a certain point of her life. So I respected it and I said to her, “But why don’t we call Isabelle ‘Etta’?” She thought about it for a while but she stuck with Isabelle.
But do I have characters like that? I inspire myself with a lot of different people when I star in films or plays, so yeah, I’ve been obsessed with a lot of different characters or singers or dancers and actors for specific plays or characters. I was listening to Etta James all the time, and the first day of shooting was me dancing.
In the club? I love that scene.
She goes into that space to dance by herself, being in need of love and not being fulfilled, and then he comes like an angel into her life. That was something for me, because I felt so exposed. And when you have to jump into a movie like that for the first day, it’s wonderful in a way, because there’s no trying to hide. You’ve got to jump into it. That was a good start.
And then you did Denis’s next movie, High Life. What was that like, to work with her right after?
I finished High Life in October or November. It’s very rare to shoot with the same director in the same year with very different projects. I was surprised. I love Claire. There’s a woman in her that is not conventional, who’s saying what she’s feeling, who loves shooting people in their own truth. She has a great sense of dignity and respect. And yet, using people as she sees them, there’s an honesty in her work that I appreciate. She’s going through anguish, anxiety, and all [that], but she would speak it out so you’ll know where her ship is. There’s not a hidden place in her. She will speak out.
She really seems to think out everything in her films.
Yes, everything. While working on Let the Sunshine In, I must have said something, maybe with a negative connotation, and I was not even aware of it, and she got upset. It was the first time, and I was wondering, “Why did she get upset at that moment?” And then I thought, “Ah. It’s because she only wants to have positive energy around her.” Because it’s so difficult to make a film already. And then when I figured that out, I was always with the wind where she wanted to go. I was always on her side and on the film’s side. That’s probably why the energy together was so smooth and intense, but very much hand-to-hand.
One thing I love about this movie is how close she shoots you; you have such a great face for micro-expressions. Just the way your expression changes when a man is talking to you and you’re reacting, but you’re sort of holding it back. There’s humor, there’s tragedy, and you express that so well.
Well, when you have a director who allows you to just be, that’s really as simple as that. And there’s no judgment; there’s just the pleasure of lifting it into a place where it’s possible. There’s no anticipation, no fear. It’s just that we’re going through that place of the moment of the shooting. But I felt there was genuinely an easy way of working. She trusted me, and vice versa.
You know, I went to Criterion, and I took 24 Frames! I haven’t seen it yet. We enjoyed each other’s company, and he was a warm person with lots of humor. He enjoyed sharing the process of filming, and making a story, and the reflection on men and women. He was a special person. I’m so happy I was able to speak to him before he left, because I didn’t see him, unfortunately, but I did speak to him very late because I made a mistake with the time difference. I phoned him at one o’clock in the morning his time and he answered, and he was so sweet.