For whatever reason, over the past year or so I’ve found myself watching a lot of movies starring the French actor Juliette Binoche. I know people are aware that she’s good, but after seeing so much of her, I’m starting to wonder why we aren’t talking about her pretty much all the time.
It often seems a bit of a stretch to refer to actors as “brave.” “Bold,” maybe, but there aren’t a lot of people who are really showing us something that might be genuinely terrifying to do. Binoche is one of the few. Her ability to convey raw, visceral emotion in ways that seem as if she’s actually tapping into her own personal pain is sometimes so immediate that I feel like I shouldn’t even be looking at her, like I’m spying on something that’s supposed to be private. She can show insecurity with the corners of her mouth, obstinacy-mixed-with-defeat in the space under her eyes. She more than fully embraces her sexuality as a 50-something woman, as we can see in the great French director Claire Denis’ 2018 science fiction film High Life, in which Binoche conducts explicit, often disturbing fertility experiments while stationed in outer space. Binoche never, ever plays it safe, and has proved as much working with some of the most intriguing, artistically ambitious, and provocative directors of the past few decades, including Denis, the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, and the late Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami.
One of her films that really blew me away is Kiarostami’s Certified Copy from 2010. Binoche plays a woman who meets a writer who’s giving a lecture, and they begin a conversation. Which sounds pretty innocuous, but where it all leads is simply not something that can be described. The content isn’t shocking or anything, they essentially just continue talking, but Kiarostami is rarely interested in showing you what it looks like he’s showing you. The film takes an extremely sharp turn, and becomes very challenging, but I couldn’t look away. It felt a bit like catching a knuckleball—trying to anticipate where it’s going is only going to get you some bruises. Instead, you need more of a zen-like approach, just following the wind as it blows and not trying to control it. If you can do it, it’s an incredible film, and Binoche is astounding as she flows through extremes of what I guess you could call multiple roles. Or maybe they’re the same role. That’s up to you.
Another I loved is Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Binoche plays an actor dealing with the fact that she’s now middle-aged, as she’s offered a part in the same play that shot her to stardom as a 20-year-old, only now she’ll be playing the role of the “older woman,” a role she once saw as uninteresting and without nuance. Kristen Stewart plays her personal assistant in the film and the two women together are sublime—they spend much of the movie in conversation, as Binoche struggles to see the benefit in playing this older role and Stewart tries to open her employer’s eyes to the artistic possibilities she might be straining to see. The tension and rhythms between them are asymptotically related to the friction in the play Binoche is preparing for, and the somewhat blurry lines that result are not altogether unlike what we see in Certified Copy, though they’re easier to digest. Binoche is allowed to be a little more pleasantly playful in Clouds of Sils Maria, but between her and Stewart, you’ll have a hard time finding a better acting showcase.
Binoche works a lot, and so you’ll find her in all sorts of things, even Godzilla movies, but I’d urge you to demand more of yourself as a movie-watcher, and seek out some of these riskier films. You’ll be confronted with some ideas you may not find anywhere else, and you’ll see that Juliette Binoche is truly one of the greatest actors we have.