Not every actor would accept a part in a love story with a former real-life lover,
sifting through layers of personal memory and pain to create a thing of beauty for the world to see.
Juliette Binoche is not every actor.
The quiet courage of playing Eugénie in Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things,” France’s contender for the International Academy Award, with Benoît Magimel, with whom she has a daughter but to whom she had not spoken in years, is one of the things that distinguishes the body of work of the Oscar winner, now in her fourth decade of daring, memorable performances.
As Eugénie, Binoche plays the personal cook to renowned gourmet Dodin Bouffant in his country home in 1889 France. French reverence for the art of cuisine defines the film, as Tran brings a painterly touch to the kitchen dance of chopping, peeling, braising, sifting, plating — from a simple omelet to a fish stew to a thrice-roasted rack of veal. (If you were lucky enough to see 1987’s “Babette’s Feast,” you will feel right at home.)
Eugénie and Dodin say very little outside the affairs of gastronomy. And they don’t need to. When you watch him lovingly make Eugénie a roasted chicken, feet and all, stuffed with slices of fresh truffle, and when he asks permission to watch her eat the dish, all is clear.
But the real-life part? That added another level of intensity.
“We hadn’t shot a film together for 25 years. So I was a little, you know — I was fearful,” she said with unexpected candor in a Los Angeles hotel room drenched in November sun. She was dressed for our photo shoot in a chic black pantsuit, with a white shirt and black tie. Her hair was drawn back in a simple bun and she looked untrammeled by age, simply as you would expect her to look with her signature high cheekbones and mysterious smile.
“We hadn’t spoken a lot since the separation,” she went on. “So there was a lot of — how do you say it in English? — the unspoken. The fact that I could use the dialogue, the written situations in the film, to express my feelings for him, to express the love that is beyond anything… that was a way to reconcile. And also give my daughter a sort of present seeing your parents get along, they can work together, they can express feelings through a film.”
She paused, her deep brown eyes glancing off to the side. “That’s a wonderful art form, a wonderful medium. It could be family. It could be lovers from the past, it could be a husband, it could be a wife, it could be children. The art form is a way to express something to the other that you don’t have to actually try to resolve through words or conversation. It allows you to express the feelings without having the weight of having to find the words that can be awkward.
“And so, making a film with him was a wonderful, uplifting, transitional way of saying, ‘I love you no matter what happened.’ We need it.” There’s a pause as the emotion of what she shared hung in the air. “I know. Yeah, I know. But I used the film to reconcile with my daughter’s father.”
Still, you don’t need to know any of that to be moved by the grace of Tran’s lyrical imagery, or the way that Dodin stares at Eugénie — who, by the way, refuses to marry him, year after year. (It’s not a spoiler to say she finally gives in.)
Binoche, 59, was Tran’s first choice to play the role. “I immediately thought of Juliette,” said Tran, who wrote the film based on the book “The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet” by Marcel Rouff, in a discussion in the movie’s press notes. “Juliette has unbelievable presence. Once she appears, everything becomes real, interesting, moving… She may not be aware of it, but when she was with us, discipline improved on set. And to be honest, the film would never have been made without her help.”
Binoche — often referred to admiringly as “La Binoche” — is one of a tiny number of European actresses who have worked almost without interruption in this era, delivering a series of iconic performances over time. The daughter of a director-sculptor father and an actress-teacher mother, she came to public attention in 1984, playing a modernized, teenage version of the Virgin Mary in Jean-Luc Godard’s controversial “Hail Mary.” That was quickly followed by a performance as a struggling actress with an erotic backstory in André Téchiné’s “Rendez-vous,” which caused a stir at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.
From there she catapulted to international fame when she played Tereza in Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in 1988.
In fact, the list of legendary directors with whom she has worked is somewhat mind-boggling. I first interviewed Binoche in 1993, when she starred in “Three Colors: Blue,” one of a landmark trilogy of films by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. And it was only three years later that she co-starred in the sweeping wartime epic “The English Patient,” directed by Anthony Minghella, as the nurse who cares for a mysterious, wounded soldier, played by Ralph Fiennes. The role won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Over the years she has also worked with Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, David Cronenberg, Abbas Kiarostami and of course Lasse Hallström, who cast her in 2000’s “Chocolat,” for which she was nominated for a second Academy Award. She has also had a series of co-stars that will live in the history books — besides Day-Lewis and Fiennes, Jeremy Irons in “Damage,” Daniel Auteuil in “Caché,” Vincent Lindon in “Both Sides of the Blade” and even Robert Pattinson in “Cosmopolis” — not to mention the epic “Les Amants du Pont Neuf” with Denis Lavant, directed by Leos Carax.
I asked if acting is still a driving passion for her in the same way it was when she started. Yes, she said, except for a period of 18 months when she turned 40 and felt creatively bereft. Other than that, she has felt the need to pursue her craft. That pursuit motivates her more than the fulfillment of delivering the performance.
“The satisfaction comes after,” she said. “Before, it’s the need of making this film, the need of telling that story. The need of embodying that, going through the thing. After, when you gave yourself, when there’s been a sort of transformation, even transmission, then there’s a sort of freedom that is satisfying. But before that, the need takes over.”
To do that, she explained, requires a willingness to let go and descend into a place of vulnerability. “Every time it has to be scary,” she says. “I mean — it is scary. Being truthful means going down into a place that is very intimate, that belongs to your experience and your education, but is also transforming. Throwing the education away, throwing ideas away in order to really be in the question of: What is me? What am I feeling? What is meaningful to me? Or even to go places into the ‘I don’t know.’
“The feeling is also very freeing, because you’re not trying to hold on to things. It’s about experiencing in this very humble place. And the not-knowing place is the best one in a way. Acting is really going back to that place of the I don’t know. It’s about giving something that you don’t know.”
At this stage of her career, Binoche still finds ample interesting work, like a new limited series on Apple that will be out in February in which she plays Coco Chanel, “The New Look.” That, she said, may turn out to be the most challenging role of her life.
“The TV show is really about Dior and Chanel during the Second World War,” she said. “And we did 10 episodes. What was difficult was to sustain Coco Chanel emotionally — she had this tremendous energy and was kind of contradictory. She was a ball of energy. To sustain that for seven months was very demanding.”
One thing that may well have sustained the longevity of Binoche’s career has been her limited work in Hollywood. She has been in a few big productions, like “Godzilla” in 2014. But she said she turned down Steven Spielberg for a role in an early Indiana Jones movie, and when “Jurassic Park” came around she had already accepted the role in “Blue.”
After a rich career that doesn’t seem close to ending, Binoche said she has learned her own secret to feeling fulfilled. “Life has given me a lot, you know?” she said. “Saying ‘yes’ is important. Saying ‘no’ [too]. But you have to say ‘yes’ for what’s given to you and recognize it — meaning that you know, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m here for. That’s why I came here.’”
This story first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.