Juliette Binoche on Working With Claire Denis and Turning Down Spielberg

More than two decades after delivering an Oscar-winning performance in “The English Patient” and starring in “Chocolat,” Juliette Binoche still possesses that je ne sais quoi. It’s that certain something that seduces and beguiles. In many of her films, particularly those with French director Claire Denis, such as “Let The Sunshine In,” “High Life”  and her latest collaboration, “Both Sides of the Blade,” the Binoche mystique has manifested itself in a kind of erotic boldness.

In addition to “Both Sides of the Blade,” a drama about a disintegrating relationship that IFC will release in the U.S. on July 8, Binoche recently appeared in HBO Max’s “The Staircase.” She’s now in Paris shooting Apple TV+’s period show “The New Look” in which she plays fashion designer Coco Chanel. We met her at the Loews Regency hotel in New York, where she appeared relaxed and stylish as ever, dressed in a Burgundy vinyl jacket by Courrèges.

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You’ve described shooting “Both Sides of the Blade” as emotionally draining. What did you mean by that?

Yes, it was a brutal shoot. That brutality was embedded in the subject of the film because it’s about the confrontation of a couple, and it triggers a lot of passion and aggressiveness. There’re also some synergies that can form on set between actors and directors and the crew which can be more electric than others. I think all of us were quite brave to stay on this shoot until the end and we gave it this intensity you see on screen.

In “Both Sides for the Blade” and other films you’ve made you make a point of humanizing characters who are behaving badly. What’s your secret? 

I don’t think anyone is born being mean. Some people may be more fragile than others but we’re on Earth to transform ourselves and heal. Acting is about questioning, what is being human, in this situation, in this period, in front of these people. It’s also about wanting to embody these emotions, thoughts and sensations.

In all three movies you made with Claire Denis your performances are quite sensual, and there’s nudity. How do you feel about being naked on screen?

The first time Claire Denis saw me put on those high boots in “Let the Sunshine In,” she was like, “That’s it! that’s what a French woman looks like!” She’s driven by desire when she films women. She approaches her camera close to you and she searches for the perfect shot, and when she gets it she shows it to the cinematographer and says “that’s where you need to be.” When you’re filmed in that way you can only feel reassured. That’s why I trust her completely.

You’ve passed on many roles in major blockbusters. Why?

But I did some! A few minutes in “Godzilla”… to impress my son, I must admit! And “Ghost in the Shell,” I resisted at first. I refused two or three times and they rewrote the role again and again, and at the end there was an interesting part. I adored playing opposite Scarlet Johansson.

Did you really turned down Steven Spielberg three times?

I don’t remember very well but Steven reminded me! The first time was for “Indiana Jones 3,” because I was doing “The Lovers on the Bridge” with Leos Carax. The second time, for “Schindler’s List,” I was pregnant, and then for the dinosaurs (“Jurassic Park”), I had already committed to “Three Colors: Blue” (Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film). It would have been amusing to do “Jurassic Park” to see how (Spielberg) makes the film, but at the same time, Spielberg is more of a men’s director, like Scorsese actually.

Would you be more open to work with these filmmakers today?

Of course I would! Even if I find their approach to cinema to be very commercial, they have a fabulous technique which they own completely, and there’re storytellers. But their films lack women.

Are there more opportunities for female filmmakers today?

There are more and more female directors in Europe, less so in the U.S. It’s not there yet, but they’re gaining ground. I just played a truck driver in a film called “Paradise Highway” by Anna Gutto and at first they didn’t want her to direct her script, but I got on board because I love adventure. We shot in Mississippi and it wasn’t a walk in the park because it was over 100 degrees, but I got to learn how to drive a truck!

What are you watching right now?

I don’t have time but I understand the craze. It’s totally addictive. When I started the first season of “Six Feet Under” I was like drugged, and same with the documentary “The Staircase.” Then as an actor, things are changing and it’s important to evolve. I just worked with Antonio Campos, who is a filmmaker, on the limited series “The Staircase” and we made it with the conditions of a film shoot, but with the kind of comfort that moviemaking used to provide before. Nowadays, we often have to wrap filming in five or six weeks. Sometimes we can’t even do a second take. It can be difficult to work in these conditions.

In “The New Look,” you’ll play Coco Chanel. What attracted you to the role?

There were 10 great scripts because it’s 10 episodes, and it’s going to be like playing different roles because we’ll show her at different stages of her life. But I can’t say more at this point.

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