Column: Strategies

by Lucas Peterson

La Binoche
In France, she’s known simply as La Binoche—do we have an actress in the United States that commands such reverence and respect? (Maybe Meryl Streep—but could you imagine calling her “The Streep” and keeping a straight face?) Our American desire for likeability and approachability has created a celebrity culture in which they’re simultaneously worshipped and dragged down in the dirt with the rest of us plebes several times within one 24-hour news cycle.

This schizoaffective relationship with fame does not hold true in other parts of the world, and it was thus with some trepidation that I walked into a small, well-appointed study in La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco where Juliette Binoche was holding court and conducting interviews. She was seated behind a desk drinking tea when I stepped into the room, and was just finishing up taking a young, female English reporter to task. The girl’s mistake? Saying that it was “an honor” to meet Binoche. “What does that even mean?” asked Binoche. “Honor. It’s such a powerful word. Was it really an honor to meet me?”

Jesus Christ, I thought. The poor English girl literally walked backwards out of the room, apologizing. And so came my first lesson: Think very carefully about what you say to Juliette Binoche and be prepared to explain yourself. She suffers no fools. She apparently doesn’t even suffer reasonably well-intentioned people who make off-the-cuff remarks. (N.B. I realize that men and women are held to different and unfair standards of appearance and beauty in the entertainment industry, as well as in life, but I’d like to briefly point out that Binoche is beautiful. Her beauty is intimidating. She’s 50 years old and looks fantastic; seemingly without having shot her face up with anthrax or horse tranquilizers.) I didn’t learn my lesson, though, because the first thing I asked her was if she had ever imagined she would receive a lifetime achievement award (this was at the Marrakech International Film Festival—she was debuting a film called  A Thousand Times Good Night and receiving said award) and she replied, “No. You don’t think that way, do you?” This two-word rejoinder—do you?—was not accidental. And it was not rhetorical. She was looking at me and wanted an answer. “Uh…no?” I responded, after which I saw the exact moment she decided she would let me off the hook. Her face broke slightly, she smiled, and went on: “I’m also not thinking about when I’ll be dead and people coming to my funeral. Life is about present, right? At the same time I accept the consecration—do you have the same word in English?—because it’s symbolic.”

If Binoche comes across as somewhat regal, she does so as a carefully calculated professional strategy. She did not embrace Hollywood early in her career—she famously chose to do Kieslowski’s Red, White and Blue trilogy over some big-budget films like Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park—a decision that would have been a death knell for lesser actors. Binoche’s extreme bluntness is partly, well, just being French, but mostly because she has had to fight and work extremely hard for what she’s earned, succeeding in spite of choosing to stay on the fringes of Hollywood.

In her new film, A Thousand Times Good Night, Binoche takes on a character as iconoclastic as herself: a war photographer who has to balance love of career with family and societal expectations. “It’s an important question for any woman who has a passion,” she explained. “A woman who goes to war zones is considered a bad mother but a man who does wouldn’t be considered a bad father.”

The director, Erik Poppe, described working with Binoche as “a dogfight.” Binoche seemed bemused, “What does it mean, ‘dogfight?’” She continued: “It was difficult sometimes. I felt the script had a lack of work.” I ask if she felt pressure to carry weak scripts with the strength of her own acting and reputation. She considers carefully before replying, “Yeah. I have to be responsible. I think you have to.”

Binoche has no fewer than six films in production right now, including Godzilla, so she may be embracing the establishment as she enters the fourth decade of her career. Again, it’s all part of her strategy: “I’m living what I want to accomplish. My main goal is to be. Just to be. In my choices; embody my choices.”