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Why French Film Queen Juliette Binoche is having a moment

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Some film stars play variations of themselves; others disappear into their roles. Somehow Juliette Binoche manages to do both: you’re never entirely unaware that you’re watching the French arthouse stalwart, and yet she manages to embody a spectrum of human emotions unreachable to lesser actors prone to overcompensation and overacting.

Between a recent retrospective of her work at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and the fact that she stars in no fewer than three films at this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival, it’s fair to say that Binoche is having something of a moment on the Australian arthouse circuit.

“Binoche has a very loyal following,” says ACMI programmer James Nolen. “Niche, but loyal.”

Nolen has been a fan ever since he watched Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1993 film Three Colours: Blue, regularly held up as showcasing some of her finest acting work.

“Her performance in that film just changed me in a way,” Nolen says. “I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but when it came out, I hadn’t been to France, [even though] I’d always been a Francophile and studied French at school and university. But I watched this film and was like ‘right, I need to get to Paris!’ It just worked its magic on me.”

Juliette Binoche in Three Colours: Blue
Juliette Binoche in Three Colours: Blue. Source: Criterion Collection

He singles out her expressionistic face for praise. “It’s quite well documented that her biggest acting tool is her incredible face…she can convey so much with so little.”

That expressionistic quality is on full display in Let the Sunshine In, which has just been released on DVD and streaming after a short cinema run. Binoche plays Isabelle in Claire Denis’ film, a Parisian artist navigating tricky romantic terrain.

In the key scene, Isabelle approaches a friend in a women’s bathroom. Discussing a boorish banker she has just ended things with, Isabelle says that the only thing that turned her on about him was thinking about how much of a bastard he was. She then starts to cry, saying that her love life is behind her, before abruptly changing registers and gently smiling while mentioning a recent encounter with her ex-husband. She gets serious again when she notes that their interaction was ruined because it was “the talk of two depressed people who met, fell in love, and play it safe.”

Binoche’s full spectrum of emotions is on display in the scene: she begins by laughing about her former lover, then breaks down at the prospect of faded romance before reaching some sort of bittersweet equilibrium. It’s the perfect distillation of the film’s complex exploration of a woman’s emotions, and it’s all there in her performance.

It’s the perfect distillation of the film’s complex exploration of a woman’s emotions, and it’s all there in her performance.

“It’s such a rollercoaster,” Nolen says. “In almost a millisecond you can have such a joyous [moment] and then it’s so dark and almost heartbreaking, isn’t it? I’ve never seen anyone quite do that without looking ridiculous.”

Philippe Platel, Artistic Director of the Alliance Française French Film Festival, says that her prodigious work ethic lends credo to the Binoche mystique.

“The amount of work she dedicates to every role is probably a key to understanding not her popularity, but the way that she can travel from one role to another, and very different ones. If you compare High Life with her role in Non-Fiction, they’re radically different.”

The former film sees Binoche team up with her Let the Sunshine In director Claire Denis to play a scientist obsessed with creating human life aboard a space ship, the latter reunites her with her Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas. Both films are screening at the festival alongside Who You Think I Am, in which Binoche pretends to be a twenty-something online, embarking on a virtual relationship with a younger man.

Binoche’s eclectic choices can be a godsend for festival directors, who rely on recognisable faces to draw audiences into films that they otherwise might never see.

“Each time we have a film with Juliette Binoche, or with Catherine Deneuve or Isabelle Huppert, the audience is always reactive,” Platel says. “Always. You never get bored … because there is always something different.

“The thing I love is that they are very adventurous as well. They help small projects, young filmmakers to emerge, thanks to their reputations and popularity. Without them clearly some projects couldn’t exist.”

Nolen agrees. “I think she uses the weight of her gravitas, to perhaps help some other lesser known filmmakers along. She’s generous. And obviously works very hard as well, I think she’s almost constantly in production.”

Nolen’s favourite Binoche performance is in Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915, in which she plays the famed sculptor Camille Claudel, who was confined to an asylum by her family.

Juliette Binoche in Non-Fiction, screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.
Juliette Binoche in Non-Fiction, screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. Source: Supplied

“It’s probably as close as what you’d imagine her to be like if she was performing live on stage,” he says. “There’s that honesty, but there is a rawness that I don’t think all actors can convey convincingly, before turning it into something else.”

She teamed up with the same director for 2015’s Slack Bay, which Philippe Platel singles out for showing a different side to the actor.

“Dumont himself says he really pushed her into the Burlesque side of acting … however, she also looks very natural. This is like a miracle!”

She brings that same complexity to High Life, and a character who Platel notes is less a naturalistic character than a “cinematographic monster”.

“The particularity with Binoche is that she can make every character natural and realistic, even the less realistic ones.”

The Alliance Française French Film Festival is currently underway across Australia from March to April. Let the Sunshine In is out now on streaming and DVD through Madman Films. Camille Claudel: 1815 is streaming on SBS On Demand.

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