French actress Juliette Binoche and Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli take a deep dive into European cinema.
French actress Juliette Binoche has appeared in more than 40 feature films, been the recipient of numerous international accolades, is also a published author and has appeared on stage across the world. She won an Academy Award for her performance in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, and Best Actress Award at Venice Film Festival for Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Blue. We’ve asked Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, who himself has been featured at MoMA, MOCA, the Guggenheim, and the Venice Biennale to sit down with Juliette to discuss, among other things, Hollywood and staying true to oneself.
Francesco Vezzoli—So you are in Italy? I am personally curious to what brings you here. You’re filming a movie with an Italian director?
Juliette Binoche —Yes, he’s Sicilian and he makes a point of being Sicilian and so we’re shooting there. It’s his first feature film. I read the script and I liked it very much. I saw one of his short films and I think he’s very talented so I wanted to do a picture with him. Since Blue (Kieslowski’s movie Blue), I was avoiding films with the death of a child because I didn’t want to repeat myself so I was resistant but this script was so strong and I’ve never played that character before, and I was inclined to go film with him.
Francesco—Are you playing an Italian woman?
Juliette—No, I’m playing a French woman living in Sicily.
Francesco—So you’re with Rossellini [laughs]?
Juliette—[laughs] When I think of Stromboli I’m actually thinking of Ingrid Bergmann.
Juliette—Yeah but you’re right that two women were there.
Francesco—For me that story is heartbreaking. I am totally obsessed with that moment of history in cinema that she’s there on one island (Stromboli) with Rossellini and Anna decided to make a movie on the island next to it (Vulcano Island), because she was very competitive and jealous of her ex-fiancé’, Rossellini, making a movie in Italy with Ingrid.
Francesco—Anyway I think there is an interesting resemblance between you and Anna Magnani because you are this kind of French heroine, being the only French woman to win an Academy Award with Simone Signoret. Am I correct?
Juliette—Yes she did.
Francesco—But with all respect for Anna I think you have survived the curse of the Academy Award much better.
Francesco—For Anna it became like a burden on her shoulders but you seem to have escaped the restraint of Hollywood. May I say that?
Juliette—Yes in a way I resisted it because I think it’s better to be open to the world more than to one system. Anna Magnani is one of my heroes. There are three actresses that I really admire and are great inspirations and I go back to see their films. One of them is Anna Magnani, there’s also Liv Ullmann and Gena Rowlands. This triangle of women is an inspiration because they never really worked in the system. They were very independent even though Liv Ullmann worked more than 30 years with (Ingmar) Bergmann. The independence of soul and being is key because movies are about life, about intimacy, about entering into yourself and discovering things through a story, meeting a director, through actors. It’s a sort of jump into one’s self, revealed by the confrontation of others. So I’m looking for directors that are mostly strong and independent.
Francesco—They are heroes for me too, but I love the fact that at least two of them, if not Liv Ullmann as well, had a strong relationship with a male director.
Francesco —Anna with Rossellini , Gena had Cassavetes and Liv had Bergmann. I’m just saying this for the readers. I like that you picked three women strongly in love metaphorically or for real with three men who changed the history of cinema.
Juliette—That’s true. In a way, working with Leos (Leos Carax) as a young director, and me as a young actress, we had this common dream of making films together but we didn’t carry on. Sometimes you have to accept that things don’t go the way you dream them.
Francesco—This answer is very touching because in my personal and professional life, there’s always a dream, especially when you are young, of being in love with someone you can work with. Reading your biography I noticed the first love of your public life was Leos, and I was really touched. I’m glad you brought it up. I’m in love with him as a director. I’m happy that you had that in your life. It’s like being revolutionaries or like fighters when love mixes with the enthusiasm of doing work together. Do you agree with me that working in Hollywood is very different from working in Europe?
Juliette—You have to understand that the Hollywood system is very political. I was not that aware when I started having some propositions from Hollywood, but after thirty years, I’m more aware of it now. The women in Hollywood are used for a purpose. Of course there are exceptions. There are wonderful directors in America that are really interested in the feminine sides of themselves, but it’s very rare. When you see Scorsese, Spielberg, Sergio Leone, those big visionaries, they are more interested in the world of violence they come from, and are not really entering into the feminine side…their films are shown worldwide, their input changes the world so much… Because the movies are shown around the world and promoted so strongly. They bring a sort of violence in the world. In a way, I’m waiting for them to wake up.
Francesco—[Laughs] Well certainly if I think of Sergio Leone, Once upon a time in America, the perspective is very masculine, even on a visual level. It’s as though it’s all through the eyes of Robert de Niro. The female role in the epic is romantic but it’s merely visual.
Juliette—[interrupts] I’ve been resisting being used for a masculine purpose because I think that if the feminine part is not really lived you’re missing half of yourself.
Francesco—No, no, I can totally see that. I can see that from the choice of the people that you’ve been working with. Just like an artist’s career, the exhibition he does, the institutions he chooses and the projects he pursues. These choices become his own embroidery. When I see your list, I see your movies, your directors. I see your effort to create your own endless performance, your story.
Juliette—Yes because for me it’s no different from painting or dancing. You have to create your own world. What is fascinating to me in movies is that you have a camera, which is an object outside of yourself. It allows you to get in. And the combination of the two, inside and outside, is a movement that has been fascinating me for years. I’m still in search of “Who are we?” “Who am I?” “How do we behave? How do we let go? How do we transform? How do we get stuck?” It’s all those questions that are fascinating. And they allow you not to be in a system, but in an interrogation of life and I think an art form, any art form is about a huge question that you ask yourself. Not always with answers but certainly with other questions.
Francesco—I totally agree. When in my work they say to me “Can you give an explanation?” I say “Artists ask questions, they don’t necessarily provide answers, sometimes maybe they do but its for critics. As an artist, I worked a lot on the identity of the actress, and any movies where an actress accepts to take the risk, to some degree, of interpreting different stages of her career in the same movie, is very fascinating. As soon as it came out I saw Maps to the Stars with Julianne Moore, playing Avanna Sigren. I know you worked with David Kronenberg as well, and it was interesting that both you and Kronenberg were making movies about the role of the actress at the same time. Did you see Maps to the Stars?
Juliette—No, they were showing it in Cannes but I was there only for two days, so I didn’t.
Francesco—Ok, well I’ll email you when I see yours, and then I can ask you an extra question. Maps to the Stars is a movie where Julianne Moore plays the role of an actress aging in the Hollywood system, and I think she does a magnificent job. I think she’s one of the few people that have this sensibility in the Hollywood system.
Francesco—What was it like working with Kronenberg? I think his last two movies are amongst the finest work he’s ever done, and to be honest I loved your moment in Cosmopolis, because you play an art advisor, and I hate art advisors [laughs].
Juliette—[laughs] I only shot two or three days. The atmosphere was like being in a green box, because he was making most of the movie with the green screen. It was almost like an operating room but he was very open to any kind of suggestions. We rehearsed and then he would let me move in front of the camera the way I wanted. He’d just tell me to avoid being here, or there. Everything was extremely precise, the camera was operated by the DP, while Kronenberg was keeping track of the blocking off to the side. So it was only me and the other actor, Robert Pattinson, in this room followed by the camera. It was easy because it was like being free in a small space. I just had to come as a woman in two worlds with the need of being loved and feeling sex, while at the same time dealing with the media and dealing with her business. I felt the combination was interesting. It makes the relationship sort of tortured in a way and at the same time human. It was a pleasure to work with Kronenberg. He’s very mellow, calm and controlled. He knows what he wants and what he doesn’t want, so its easy when you have someone as clear as he is.
Francesco—If I may ask, does he tell his actors what the rest of the movie is about? Or does he do it a bit like Fellini that you know your part but don’t know the rest of the script?
Juliette—I had the book, I had the script. We didn’t see each other before really, but it’s like working with a family. I think his sister is the set designer and he’s been working with the same DP for many films. It’s very calm and comfortable.
Francesco—I know you were playing Pirandello in a London theatre and now you are in Sicily. I have a special love for Pirandello, I made one of my projects about his theatre. Are you attached to his work?
Juliette—I love Pirandello. When I was 18 I did a play of his, Henry IV, which was my first job as an actress. What I love is that he’s always combining fiction and reality, he always has this kind of back and forth between two worlds that I love very much. It’s what I’ve been exploring in different movies, for instance in Certified Copy by Kiarostamim about a couple that doesn’t know each other. At some point she’s making him her husband, so you never know if they will stay together, or if it was a fiction. And in Clouds of Sils Maria, there’s a relationship between the actress and the assistant, but you don’t know if it’s a love relationship or they’re just rehearsing scenes. Two worlds that are playing with the reality and a vision. I think it’s close to life in a way, because what is reality? There are a lot of different realities, when you sleep you’re in the reality of dreams and you’re acting into it, in life you have sometimes different layers. Is it a real feeling or is it a projection? In acting there’s always this layer of need, which you develop as a child. There are needs you have and you build yourself bit by bit with education, with protection of what’s inside and how you’re viewed. All these layers are always in us and we play with them, but to try and find your inner self is the search of a life, its like finding a little needle in a haystack, you have to try and find this at the end to know how to manage yourself and what it is to live.
Francesco—I totally agree and I was really touched by your analysis of Pirandello. I worked on this play of his—Right You Are (If You Think So)—which is totally centered around the woman. The whole play is in three acts with the entire village debating whether she’s one person or the other person. She never appears until the end of the play, and says—“I am both, this is the truth”. I think you unfolded the core of Pirandello’s analysis. I think you would enjoy this play and you would be the perfect actress to play the role. One day you should be in this show.
Juliette—It’s true that when a play poses an existentialist question, it allows the audience to really open up and relive pain or questions, because we’re all on a journey, we all want a transformation. This existentialist possibility in any art form or medium is the purpose of it, because it allows to link the visible with the invisible, and acting is really about invisible. The words are not interesting, its what’s underneath. What is not said is really what it is about.
Francesco—It’s very interesting you brought up the audience as an answer to my observation because in one staging of this Pirandello play, Franco Zeffirelli decided that they would pick 20 or 30 people from the audience and put them on stage with the actors and so the reaction of the audience was part of what Pirandello considered part of his art work. It goes perfectly back to the idea of the artist posing questions that open up new emotions for the audience. Can I ask some lighter questions? Otherwise they will complain we made the interview too intellectual.
Francesco—To the best known living French actress I will ask “François Truffaut or Luc Godard?” I know you’ve worked with Godard in Hail Mary. What was your take in that moment of French cinema.
Juliette—I was a young actress. It was one of my first films. I just came out of theatre classes where the teachers were helping me open up and so when I started shooting Hail Mary, I was surprised that he was not interested in helping the actors, he was concentrating on finding a way of filming the struggle inside himself. He was making the movie as we were going along. I was stuck in a hotel for five months. We were at his complete disposal whenever he wanted to shoot and that was his way. He didn’t want to have any make up and would change his mind all the time. We would come on set but then we would go back to the hotel because he didn’t know what to do. When you are very young you want to be led, but with him I had the experience of being alone and not knowing. In a way it taught me a lot because afterwards when I came on set I didn’t expect anything from the director or look for security, because he, himself was insecure! It taught me in a very deviant way that I have to be independent and know what I am doing. I have to come on set with my own luggage. It taught me to know better.
Francesco—Voilà, I personally think for Truffaut [Laughs] because unlike those directors you mentioned in the beginning, I think he was a great womanizer but I think he was in touch with his feminine side. Don’t you think?
Juliette—Yes he was. At the same time, I fell that Truffaut had an intellectual craft. He needed to be comforted by work, comforted by getting control through work. Godard, even though he reads a lot, he puts a lot of extracts from books. He was more genuine, I feel. Also, talking about being with an actress like Anna Karina, he did the most beautiful films when he was in love with her. Even when they were separated they were making beautiful films together. You feel the tension, the needs not being fulfilled, and the lightness he lived with Anna Karina. Having filmed A Woman is a Woman, he created something quite light and full of love.
Francesco—So, what do you think of social media? How do you relate to it? I am very ignorant about these things and have a bit of a problem with it. I am curious to hear your thoughts. Do you have an Instagram account?
Juliette—No, I don’t.
Juliette—You have to choose where you have to put your energy and time. I have two kids and I’d rather spend time with them.
Francesco— You don’t have to say more. That’s the perfect answer! Thank you. I think this was a very interesting conversation and you’ve been very generous. I have a naughty compliment on your life. In 2000, a film critic for Sight and Sound, Madame Vincendeau, suggested you were the tragic, despairing muse for movie directors. “The ultimate romantic icon for the audience.” You have had in your life some of the most fascinating men that have ever existed, so while I think that you may be a romantic icon, there is a very obvious sensuous and sensual side to your persona. I’d like to compliment you for that.
Juliette—Well, I don’t know what to say… thank you [Laughs].
Francesco—I think Madame Vincendeau was confusing life with cinema. I wish you a beautiful stay in Sicily.
This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2014 issue.