On Cloud Nine With Juliette Binoche

For a few days, Singaporeans will get to see her in person. Binoche is in town to attend the Singapore premiere of her latest film, Clouds Of Sils Maria, directed by Olivier Assayas and co-starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. Binoche plays Maria, an actress struggling with growing older in the unforgiving film industry.

In celebration of Binoche’s career, Clouds Of Sils Maria will be screened alongside Summer Hours (2008), her first collaboration with Assayas; and Juliette Binoche: Sketches For A Portrait, directed by her sister Marion Stalens. The screenings will take place under the aegis of both the 25th Singapore International Film Festival and the 4th Rendezvous with French Cinema.

Earlier this afternoon, Binoche spoke frankly, warmly and with no small amount of charm at a press conference held in Raffles Hotel. “It’s very warm outside,” she joked while introducing herself. “But we’d expect that. It’s good coming out of the French winter, though, to be here!”


Read on to find out how Binoche came up with the idea for Clouds Of Sils Maria and what she thinks of her young co-stars – not to mention some insights into her craft and process as an actor.

How did Clouds Of Sils Maria come about?

I was in my grandmother’s summer house, where I often make decisions on films. It just happened that I was thinking a little bit and feeling that we needed to have a film with women. I had this idea of these three characters who would represent three different points of view.

I thought about who I could do this film with, and I thought of Olivier Assayas. I shot a film with him, Summer Hours, and I was kind of frustrated because I didn’t feel that we had a real relationship as director and actor. I felt I didn’t know him; maybe because he’s a little shy and has the tendency of retreating [into himself], and also because it was an ensemble film and I didn’t have as much time with him. So I thought of asking him to go into his feminine side with this idea that I had. He said he would think about it for two weeks, and he called me and said, “Yeah, I think I have a subject!” A year and a half later, he gave me the script. So that’s how it started.

What was it like working with Kristen Stewart on this film?

I had a big chunk of scenes with Kristen; it was like the heart of the movie. We needed to spend a lot of time together. We did a few hours of rehearsal in Berlin, but I could really feel that it wasn’t her cup of tea. She doesn’t like rehearsing. It’s not her method. So she would read the lines in the scene in the morning, and she would know it. I’m not like that; I have to work for a month before and train like crazy. We spent a lot of time in real life together though. We developed a genuine understanding of each other’s being.


Kristen really jumped into this film with no safety net – like when a trapeze artist flows through the sky, and there’s nothing beneath them. Every day was a rollercoaster for her, I think, and she was brave in embracing not knowing what was going to happen. I think she enjoyed every bit of it, because it was all about acting – feeling, reacting and being alive and truthful.

Tell us about working with Chloe Moretz.

She travels with her own family, so you have the whole family gang coming along. And she’s very open to any kind of suggestions. Chloe is so brave. She was only 16 when she shot this film. But she works a lot beforehand. A war could have happened and there’d be bombing overhead, and she’d carry on working, you know? She’s a force.

How much of what’s in the film came from your own experiences?

I remember coming out of the first screening in Cannes of Certified Copy (2010), and I said to [director] Abbas Kiarostami, ‘You know, people are going to think I’m the character. I’m not the character!’ He replied, ‘That’s perfect! Say you’re the character! And then, two months later, you’ll play another character, and you can say you’re that character as well!’

Maria doesn’t have children and I have two kids. It changes a lot of things, I think. She lives in America, I don’t – and it was a real choice to live in France. Her world is not really mine. But there are things that are very close [to who I am] as well. Olivier took some of the details of my life and put in the film. Because I did play in The Seagull a long time ago, and he put it in the film. And I said, ‘You’re wicked!’ because people are going to think it’s me! Things like that.

How did you prepare for your role in this film?

There was a lot of text, so I had to train a lot in order to be totally at ease with it. There was a language coach, and that was hard for me, because my character is supposed to live in America, and I really wanted to be accurate in having more of an American accent. I didn’t accomplish totally what I wanted to do. But, at the same time, foreigners speaking English – that’s another English language, in a way, so I accepted it.


I also like to analyse the [text] and spend time on it because you don’t have that time on set. Olivier is not the kind of director who would get into the emotional or psychological side of things. He’s more into intuition and, you know, we had no rehearsals. Mainly, we were just put in front of the camera – the camera didn’t have time to rehearse either! That was the deal. That’s the game of it. You never know if it will work or not. That’s why it’s so important to have another actor with you, together on the same boat, and that’s really what we felt.

What will you take away with you from the experience of working on this film?

It was a joy, you know, this film. It’s a drama, but it has a sense of humour, and anger, and it’s complex. It’s like giving yourself over to the turmoil of emotions, and that was fun to do, because actors love emotions.

This film, for me, has a lot of little mysteries and secrets. Because Olivier and I worked in Hollywood together before – he was the screenwriter of Rendez-Vous, which I shot when I was 20 years old! So this role was – for me as an actor, thirty years after – it’s kind of crazy.

I was very moved, too, because Angela Winkler, who plays the older woman in the film that takes me to the mansion [Rose Melchior], took me on a movie set for the very first time when I was 17. I was at school and a friend of my father was in a film and asked me to come and see him. I went, but there were police on the set and so many barriers to pass. But she took my hand and took me inside. It was so symbolic and very powerful to [act opposite her in Sils Maria].

I like this kind of – you know, life is giving you things in a very mysterious way, and I love that. I can’t analyse all of it; you just have to accept the gift of it.

Is there a difference for you, acting in a French versus an English film?

It’s very hard for me to say. I just did a film in Chile, and I was speaking in English with a South American accent. Then I did a film with a Spanish director, playing an American role. Then I did a role with a Sicilian director, playing French with some Italian scenes. The evolution of movies in Europe – it’s really growing. So English becomes the language we’re using, but with a lot of different influences. I don’t know anymore.


I do know playing in English requires more work, because when you have [to have] an accent, you have to pay more attention. We don’t have this tradition in France: there are accents from the South and the North, but there’s really the general TV accent that we use. English is very specific. And I enjoy that, because I love languages and sounds.

At the moment, I’m working on a play, Antigone, which we will play in English. And the accent is very hard to define, because it’s a Greek play and we’re not going to do Greek accents, obviously. But we’re trying not to get too English, or it’ll be too formal – because it’s not Shakespeare, it’s Sophocles. And not too American, because that would be strange. So it’s somewhere in the sea, in between! [laughs]

Looking at your CV, you’d make six or seven European films, and then one Hollywood film. Is this a conscious decision, or did you just feel that the roles in Hollywood were not what you were looking for?

Well, the mystery of it is that it comes to you. Sometimes, it seems so obvious [a fit], but I still don’t know where it comes from. It’s a mixture of mystery and choice, in a way. For me, I never really make a choice about making a Hollywood film, because that doesn’t mean anything to me. The reality of it is that I live in France, so I’m not in that world. Sometimes, it happens that a film comes to me and it’s related to a big Hollywood production. But, if you think of The English Patient, Fox dropped the film two weeks before starting and Harvey Weinstein took over. He was powerful at the time, but really not as powerful as he [came to be]. Chocolat was Harvey Weinstein, mostly, and the relationship I had with his company. But he wasn’t Hollywood, in a way.

I’ve always done auteur films because that’s mainly what I’m interested in. The relationship I can develop with the director is really my passion. So I would say that life takes me – I do initiate things and I feel very much a producer in a certain way, without having that [as a credit]. But it’s about inspiring and being inspired by your directors as well.

Your character, Maria, is grappling with issues of aging. What has your own experience of that been like?

You know, I don’t feel time when I work. And that’s probably why I work all the time. [laughs] Because when you’re in ‘creation’ gear, you’re beyond space and time. That’s really what it does, it takes you into another world – a magical world. And you forget yourself. I think actors have to forget themselves when they’re in front of a camera. It’s not about them, it’s about what they have to give beyond themselves – what’s invisible, sometimes.

I’ve been training for Antigone and I’ve been doing a lot of exercises, because Antigone is 18 years old! And I must feel 18 years old. Actors have to be elastic enough to go into other worlds. You can see the outside of something, but you have to go to the core, the centre. As actors, you always have to be in touch with that core. But, you know, it’s my belief that, if you live every single stage of your life, your age – somehow, it’s fine. [You don’t feel it.] In order to be alive, your body has to be worked every day. You have to work your cells and nerves, your muscles… and your heart!

How attuned are you with Asian cinema? Are there any Asian directors you’d like to work with?

I’ve worked with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whom I really admire. We had a great time making Flight Of The Red Balloon (2007). I can’t wait to work with Jia Zhangke, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jiang Wen. I’ve had a chance to meet with them, and I’m hoping that one day something will happen. A good friend of mine is having me meet a lot of Asian directors while I’m here!

I think the films coming from Asia are very powerful and have a really strong place in festivals in Europe. But I have to say I’m very behind on watching films because I work so much that I’m not keeping up. As actors, I watch films two or three years after, or if it’s really related to what I’m doing and I need to see what’s been done on the same subject matter.


In your opinion, how has the French film industry changed over the years?

I would love to be a critic and be able to answer that question with knowledge of all the films. But the power of our films is the variety we have in France. It doesn’t always work as a commercial industry, like you get in America, for example. But you do get the variety. The creative side is very alive and that’s our power. That’s why a lot of directors from different countries come to France to shoot films. The industry supports different films in different ways. There are always ways to put a film together. Even if you have a very low budget, as long as you have a good script and a talented director and actors, it can survive. I think a lot of directors envy the way cinema is protected in France. But I’ve done mainly European or worldwide films, so I’m not a representative of France in that way – I mean, when I’m abroad, yes, but when I’m in France, no! [laughs]

You also like to paint, as we saw in your films like The Lovers On The Bridge (Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf, 1991) and Words And Pictures. Would you ever want to pursue that to the level that you do your acting career?

While Leos [Carax] was writing Lovers On The Bridge, I was painting him – and that’s how I became a painter in the script! And so, because he wrote it, I had to paint for the film. It was a great opportunity in a way, because I’ve always loved painting but had to let go of it because I was working too much as an actress.

On Words And Pictures, we started shooting and I had no paintings. I had to work so hard on weekends and when we were not shooting to get the paintings ready for the film! It was tough because I had to create a whole evolution for my character in her art – ending up with very abstract paintings on two-metre-tall canvases. So I was going crazy doing that by myself, but I enjoyed it because I do love the time when you’re by yourself and you’re in front of a white canvas. It’s always so fascinating to see what’s coming out of yourself. As I worked, I would take pictures of the evolution of the painting and I would send it to the director, because I had to be directed, somehow, as a painter since these paintings were specifically for that role. And sometimes, he would answer me late because he was shooting. He’d say, ‘Yes, yes, that’s great, stop!’ And it would already be too late because I’d finished it! It was fun. I felt I was more directed as a painter than as an actress, because I spent more time painting!

What kind of mother would you say you are to your two children?

I thought you were going to ask, ‘What kind of children do you have?’ [laughs] What kind of mum am I? You’ll have to ask them.

As a mother, you’ve got to give the trust, the confidence, the limits… you have to nurture children. I try to cook once in a while, because I think the food coming from your mother has a different taste – it’s the best. It can be very simple, but it’s always the best.

They’ve been my teachers, really. You think you have to educate them, but they teach you. They come with their own journey on Earth, and you just have to help a little bit. The trust, I think, is the main thing – it gives them wings. If you’re suspicious, I think it’s sick. If you trust them, it helps them to grow in a deep way, in a strong way. And you have to have patience. Because it’s like going upstairs. You go up one floor, and you think you’re done, and then you realise there’s another level and it goes on like this… until they can fly by themselves. It’s probably hard to let them go, though. I haven’t been through that yet. I pretend it’s fine, but it’s probably not! [laughs]

– Photos by Jedd Jong