‘It Helps to Love Without Possessing the Person’: An Interview With Juliette Binoche

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.

Yeah, true.

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.

One of my favorite films of yours is Certified Copy. I’d love to hear what Abbas Kiarostami was like; he’s dearly missed in the film world. Also, did you see 24 Frames?

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.


Rod Stewart & Santana

This powerhouse odd couple gives new meaning to the word sexagenarian. Santana can still elicit ultrasonic banshee wails on his famously no-frills solid body, eschewing pedal effects for a more quintessentially “smooth” guitar sound, and Stewart can still croak more soulfully than anyone. “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” meet “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” the Faces’ “Stay with Me,” and Stewart’s recent teenage love ballad, “Brighton Beach,” begging the question of whether Santana’s signature fedora and Rod’s mod rooster coiffe clash or complement. Yet any questioning ears should be satisfied by the pair’s keening duet on Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Wed., Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m., 2014


Getting the Drop on the Hammerstein with the Cosmic Opera

Last Thursday and Friday, the Hammerstein Ballroom hosted the first installments of the Cosmic Opera, an experiential dance-music series masterminded by Axwell, who was last seen around these parts selling out Madison Square Garden as a member of the three-DJ outfit Swedish House Mafia. The series, according to the night’s manifesto, is supposed to serve as a chance to give those people who live in the area and love electronic dance music (popularly shorthanded to “EDM”) something to look forward to, à la Miami’s late-winter/early spring series of dance events and Austin’s annual barbecue-and-bands bacchanal South By Southwest. (Acts two and three are scheduled for April and May.)

The PR for the night threw around words like “next-generation” and “extrasensory.” We were asked to dress “theatrically” for the evening, the DJ booth for the headliner resembled a pipe organ, and there were some impressive lasers being thrown out into the crowd. Also on offer: some between-act entertainment and a slight makeover—decorations fashioned from instruments and sheet music, red lights—for the first-mezzanine bar, which was rechristened a “lounge,” well-stocked with the omnipresent energy drink Red Bull.

It wasn’t really an overwhelming sensory experience, but the between-act offerings were definitely superior to your typical concert’s canned music. The three aerialists—Anya Sapozhnikova, Elena Delgado, and Airin Dalton—who dipped and weaved on rafter-suspended silks between the first and second acts thrilled, while the mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn’s performance of an aria by the composer Stephan Moore, during which she descended from the Hammerstein’s opera boxes and was eventually carried to the venue’s stage by a cadre of men, gave the night a much-needed aesthetic jolt.

Together, they brought to mind the long-running speakeasy party Shanghai Mermaid, which also invites its attendees to become one with the action by asking them to dress up in thematically appropriate clothing and having women perform acts of daring while dangling in the middle of the room. But the delicacy and artfulness supplied by those performers were overshadowed by the relentless stomp of the night’s three main acts; one aerialist did come back for Axwell’s big 2:45 a.m. finale, but I found myself wishing that the thematic elements had been heightened or at least sprinkled throughout the three main sets.

EDM is probably the biggest live-music story of the past 18 months, with festivals such as the Electric Daisy Carnival packing in candy-colored revelers for hours-long stretches of dancing and debauchery and carnival rides, as well as artists including Skrillex and Deadmau5 headlining multi-night stints in cities across the country. (Over the weekend, Electric Daisy announced a New York stint, its first, taking place this May.) Jam-packed efforts like Electric Daisy and the Cosmic Opera are part of a greater “more bang for your buck” trend in live music that extends across genres and to weekend-long concert-tourism efforts like Coachella and the All Tomorrow’s Parties series, or extended-bill outings like this summer’s tour by country heavyweights Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.

The set by Axwell, the Cosmic Opera’s headliner and mastermind, pretty effectively summed up why EDM shows have become such a draw for those in search of extended catharsis—they last long (he performed for nearly two hours), and have minimal between-song banter and maximum opportunity for bodies to get lost in the music. Lyrics that vaguely touched on the notions of love and hope swirled above beats that implied something less romantic—speed dating while embarking on a particularly grinding (yet rigidly rhythmic) subway ride, perhaps. His DJ booth was styled after a pipe organ, and a few of the tracks emanating from it had keyboard parts that could plausibly have come from such a structure. And in order to keep those people who might be new to the game interested, his set was pockmarked with songs plucked from the radio dial: Two Coldplay songs were played; Avicii’s Etta James–sampling “Levels” filled the room with its combination of James’s powerful wail and the Swedish DJ’s pummeling beat; and Axwell’s remix of Florence and the Machine’s cover of the 1986 club hit “You Got the Love” effectively pushed the Catholic-mystic British singer down the disco-diva path. Rock, despite having a rough go of it lately, was well represented; the crowd didn’t pop louder all night than when the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ mournful chug “Otherside”—the funk-metal pranksters’ 1999 retracing of the steps traveled by the similarly bleak “Under the Bridge”—dropped into the mix. (Even in the context of all the other antics, this was the night’s strangest moment. Nostalgia does funny things to people, I suppose.)

The common thread between Axwell and the night’s other two performers, the Dutch duo No-ID and the German DJ Deniz Koyu, was the “drop,” the point in the music when the action stopped in order to push its beat even deeper. The ones showcased on Thursday weren’t as malfunctioning-jet-engine-sounding as the ones proffered by the Grammy-winning dubstep DJ Skrillex, but they did have me wondering if it was the genre’s analogue to the guitar solo, i.e. the point in the music where the artist shows off his virtuosic airs, or the false ending, i.e. the point where the artist tricks the audience into thinking that the party has ended, only to whip the crowd into a frenzy again by delving back, headfirst, into the music. Koyu really went all in on the second interpretation; there were no fewer than five times that I thought his set was going to wrap up, though that could have been me projecting my hope for an end to his fairly static stomp onto his schedule. Still, the crowd, which took the notion of dressing “theatrically” in directions that involved tuxedos, tuxedo T-shirts, pacifiers, Technicolor wigs, and outfits that glowed under the spitting lasers, took on an anticipatory air every time any of the DJs threw up their hands in anticipation of the drop and, subsequently, went bonkers on cue.

At one point on Thursday night, a nearby audience member absconded with my notebook and pen and scribbled a manifesto-slash-declaration: “I RAGE ALL DAY.” (Caps his.) While some bits of excess might have been fundamentally impossible because of the venue’s own limitations/self-interest—signs posted in the bars informed attendees that there was no bottle service—the Cosmic Opera’s effort to take the idea of the never-ending party into the night (and the next morning) was admirable, if not 100 percent transcendent. Next time, maybe add a trapeze artist or two?


Dumbstruck: Ventriloquism Doc Without Much to Say

Following the apparent dictum that every sliver of American culture must be captured in a feature-length documentary film, Mark Goffman’s Dumbstruck sets to interweaving (always with the damn interweaving) the stories of five people dedicated to the art of ventriloquism. Bracketed by trips to the annual Vent Haven ventriloquism convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, where performers talk craft and hand puppets hang out, the film views the profession through a broad spectrum of experience and talent. Terry Fator puppeteered in obscurity until he took the top prize on America’s Got Talent, knocking David Hasselhoff from his chair by channeling Etta James through stilled lips (he’s now signed to a nine-figure contract at the Mirage in Vegas). Dan Horn is a master hand-manipulator whose plum gig on a luxury cruise liner keeps him at sea for seven months at a time, hastening the demise of his 25-year marriage. Former beauty queen Kim Yeager is torn between finding a husband and fully committing to her dummies, while Wilma Swartz copes with familial abandonment by serving as a quirky aunt to her local and greater performing communities. Finally, shy 13-year-old Dylan Burdette defies his dad’s jock imperatives by dedicating his time to talking dolls. All are compelling subjects, especially the disarmingly gifted and emotionally relatable Horn. But Goffman’s either unwilling or incapable of getting them to move their lips to reveal enough of themselves, or of their artistry, to make the already overly familiar endeavor worth anyone’s time.


Shemekia Copeland

Daughter of the late, great Texas bluesmaster Johnny Copeland, Shemekia is a strong, convincing belter in the tradition of Koko Taylor and Etta James. Raised in Harlem, she got her start filling in for Johnny during his difficult later years and has won scads of blues-snob polls along the way. At 31, she’s the sort of singer well worth checking in on here and down the road.

Fri., March 11, 8 & 10 p.m.; Sat., March 12, 8 & 10 p.m., 2011


Justin Bieber: A Vague Presence in His Own Origin-Myth Doc

The Bieber movie, a concert experience and origin-myth documentary, is not good—not that it needs to be. It is draggily paced and lacks felicity of form; the 3-D is a rip-off and the songs are pap, save a snippet of Etta James singing “At Last” while Bieber’s glossy fringe sways in slow-motion. The buildup to a Madison Square Garden climax-concert roughly structures Never Say Never; a throat infection creates the threat of cancellation, before “Get well” Tweets reinforce Bieber’s rededication to showbiz grind and “u,” the fans. Interspersed is a retelling of Bieber’s journey, from small-town boy in Stratford, Ontario, to the outbreak of Bieber Fever. A convincing case is made that the YouTube phenom was a talented kid with a knack for sponging up Top 20 radio styles when promoter “Scooter” Braun discovered him. From there, the movie admiringly details the stoking of a phenomenon by Braun and Team Bieber; ennobling marketing hustle, JB: NSN is A Hard Day’s Night half devoted to Brian Epstein. There’s no scrimping on the Bieber here—we see him serenading onstage, shirtless in the dressing room, in home videos, and in “candid” hometown visits—but he’s a curiously vague presence, obscured in the shadow of this monument to his brand.


Rise of the Anachronauts

I call them anachronauts: performers whose core appeal stems from their ability to transport listeners to another time and place. Whereas ordinary pop stars strive to intensify awareness of the present moment so that nothing else matters, anachronauts use archaic language, modes, and instrumentation to expand our egocentric understanding of the present with illuminating reminders of forgotten history.

I was still in high school when Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks’ 1971 live album Where’s the Money? hit the radio and permanently warped my sense of temporal reality. Now, precocious adolescents can get similarly bent hearing Hicks’s proprietary blend of western swing, Hawaiian slack-key blues, and gypsy jazz on his new CD, Tangled Tales. In town promoting the project last month, he wryly re-christened his sound “Caucasian hip-hop,” acknowledging his propensity for mining archaic genres for new tunes. Ever sifting through the past, Hicks never stops time-traveling, and while certain new songs like “Who Are You?” and “13-D” play like psychedelic vaudeville from Depression-era dance halls, a cover of Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” allows his twangy tenor to inhabit (slightly) more modern decades and environments.

Following hot on Dan’s idiosyncratic heels is a twentysomething acoustic warrior named Pokey LaFarge, who makes a bigger, more lasting impression playing kazoo and guitar than his pop-mainstream competition makes fronting entire electrified bands. A vocal polymorph, he shifts effortlessly from Gus Cannon–style jug-band humor (“Mr. Nobody”) to Mississippi John Hurt–style pathos (“Josephine”) through two indie albums of original material. This itinerant Kentucky-bred minstrel name-checks everybody from Bessie Smith and Guy Clark to Femi Kuti as influences on his MySpace page, where he proudly tags his own recordings “riverboat soul.”

Like Hicks and LaFarge, 71-year-old Etta James is a creative anachronism. Her first charting singles were risque r&b dance numbers closer in mood to Chuck Berry than to any of her black female peers. Her diction and phrasing always had more of the crisp, clean sound of early rock ‘n’ roll than the stylized drawl and grit common to ’60s soul. This versatility is captured on her 1974 album Come a Little Closer, where she flows from Curtis Mayfield–style funk to a vintage Bessie Smith cover to the up-tempo doo-wop swing the Pointer Sisters banked on the year before singing Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” If you saw Beyoncé play Etta in Cadillac Records, you need to see the real thing work a nightclub. If you’re lucky, she’ll reprise her timeless version of Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield”—the witchiest incantation Nina Simone never recorded.

Not that James is the only anachronaut steeped in witchy mojo. I first heard Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1972 and was enraptured but confused. What exactly was Cohen doing? His philosophical “folk” songs were vaguely Biblical but not gospel, rock-ish but not raucous, and he obviously had contracted the blues while in college instead of at some spooky crossroads waiting to sell, rent, or mortgage his soul. No, whether contemplating cabala, tarot, voodoo, or zen, Cohen was keeping his gothic Hebrew soul intact, along with its searchable database of 6,000 years of spiritual longing. On his current world marathon of miraculous three-hour shows, this moody troubadour and his music still defy category.

Sharing many of Cohen’s medieval and personal predilections are a group of polyphonic vocalists from Marseilles named Lo Còr de la Plana. Singing allegorical and sexy stories in Occitan (a dying language that was politically controversial even when Eleanor of Aquitaine spoke it), Lo Còr blew the roof off Symphony Space this April with 12th-century melodies sung over thunderous hand and foot percussion. Sounding sometimes like a Gregorian choir and sometimes like Mediterranean bar brawlers, the group fights cultural chauvinism like all these anachronauts do—by asserting the equal worth of every time, person, and place.

Pokey LaFarge appears May 20 in Brooklyn at the Jalopy Theater “Roots & Ruckus Show,”

Etta James performs May 11 through 13 at B.B. King Blues Club,

Leonard Cohen comes to Radio City Music Hall May 16 and 17,


If Diana Krall Played a Ukulele, Would She Win a Grammy?

You can miss the Hawaiian specifics and still get the gist of 20-year-old Raiatea Helm’s new traditionalist groove on Sweet & Lovely: the tasteful instrumentation highlighting ukulele and steel guitar, the elders cameos, the Hawaiian-language lyrics projected with contemporary punch. Some might not cotton to the way falsetto is used—the practice is to change register within the line, as in yodeling. But you’ve got to love the cheerful confidence, smooth highs, and gorgeous lows with which she sells herself.

Hawaii has been a conquered colony and cornball fantasy for more than a century, and Raiatea’s folk jazz absorbs much of that history. Sweet & Lovely works as tribute, update, and reclamation, sucking in old mele songs and 1920s pop. It even ends with a great “At Last,” more Dinah Washington than Etta James. Maybe she’s already mined out the past and this second record will remain her best, but it sounds more like a career-establishing formula. Although nominated, Raiatea went back to Molokai without a Grammy, losing to a nice old-fashioned slack-key guitar compilation. I’ll bet, and hope, that she’ll be back with lots more to tell us about the intertwined musical history of the mainland and her home.