Acting out of a Suitcase
The limitations to Juliette Binoche's cinematic double life first became apparent in Louis Malle's Damage (92). It was Binoche's move away from vulnerability - and a masochism based on the need to be loved in a world where relationships constantly fail - to a black leather world of sexual intrepidity and destructive impulses. It wasn't the right move at the correct time, but it indicated a range which would be more fruitfully explored in what may well still be Binoche's finest performance in Three Colours Blue (93). Binoche didn't have the face for the mental anguish required in Malle's film about a mixed up young woman who destroys the life of a Tory MP. Binoche's petite features - the snub nose, the delicate mouth, and the large dark eyes against the rest of the diminutive visage - lend themselves well to anything from the appearance of a cute pig (in The Unbearable Lightness of Being) to the loss of a husband and child (in Three Colours Blue): to tangible joy and despair, no matter the metaphysical touches haunting Kieslowski's film. Unfathomably twisted and emotionally lacerated remain even now slightly out of Binoche's jurisdiction. Binoche admitted "the character didn't emerge from myself."
What Malle wanted wasn't Binoche but "Binoche", and Binoche's interest doesn't come from the gap, but from the closeness of the actress and the character she plays. Where Deneuve has always been "Deneuve" - an iconic figure with a countenance interchangeable from media to media (film, advertising, interviews), but so rarely close to the self - Binoche has consistently drawn on aspects of her own personality, evident from her reservations about Damage. Malle called in a stylist, and altered her look but could only achieve a kitsch version of anguish. Finally he wasn't interested in Binoche's emotional response to the character, but instead the audience's response to her iconicfemme fatale.
One uses the term kitsch not in its narrow, simply derogatory sense, but as the novelist Milan Kundera describes it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. "The aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. The aesthetic ideal is called kitsch." Malle, by not drawing on Binoche's own inner reserves, hiring a stylist, and using Anna as an enigmatic presence whose pain is never really addressed, created a fine piece of kitsch but a bad work of art. It is a film like Damage that can lead an honest actress astray, and Binoche, apparently approaching thirty at the time of the film's release, could easily have taken the change of image on board, and allowed the coercion to transform her. One might say it's always the threat of an industry predicated on glamour. But the interior maturity she has shown, in most obviously Three Colours Blue, is of a slightly different, less forced and certainly more interesting kind.
Juliette Binoche was born in Paris in 1964. One says this with only the most tenuous of certitude because some very reliable sources give no date of birth at all, and others are contradictory. 1964 both feels right (could she really have been much older than twenty four in The Unbearable Lightness of Being?) and is backed up by at least three other sources, including French reference books. She was told early on in her career to lie about her age, and while she may not have gone that far, it is clear she has been so economical with the truth that she has said nothing about it at all; though the idea of two dates of birth - the other 1960 - lends itself well to the double image of youthfulness and sophistication.
She has been more forthcoming about her early acting experiences, and while in high school she did her Moliere stint (as part of her mother's high school theatre club), before doing professional work in Pirandello's Henry IV and Chekhov's The Seagull, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. It was a fine, friendly working atmosphere, and she expected to find the same in the cinema. Instead she came across a suspect environment. "I had the idea that there existed a family spirit in the cinema, a little like the theatre," but found the opposite. This lack of warmth, however, allowed Binoche a persona which could easily have been lost in a less austere medium. In films like Mauvais Sang (87) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (87), her waif like presence countered the usual chic expectation of the young French actress - as if her interest as an actress lay in her very discomfort with film, and her attempts to come to terms with it.
In the early stages of her career, Binoche couldn't get a handle on the fakery required. She said that it wasn't her: "I couldn't understand these tricks I had to learn to remove myself during the first three years." Maybe meeting director and lover Los Carax helped. Of a similar age and outlook, Carax also had problems with the medium, saying in Sight and Sound around the time of Les Amants du pont neuf (91) "I am sick of the French film industry." (SS, Sept. 92) He cast her in Mauvais Sang and later in the epic, years in the making, Les Amants.... While expectant producers could only prod and grope at Binoche's body and mind, Carax expected nothing less than a wholehearted commitment. There is a "strange frontier between being and acting" (SS, Sept 92) he has said, and under Carax's influence, according to Ginette Vincendeau (SS, Dec. 93) Binoche learnt how to sing and to dance, lost weight, read the novels of Balzac and, for the filming of Les Amants... learnt how to waterski.
Carax's influence on Binoche's career has been much commented upon, and he is perhaps that rare Svengali figure who clearly influences the actions of his leading lady without destroying or even greatly altering that basic appeal. The feminist writer and critic Shalumith Firestone proposes, in her book The Dialectic of Sex, that "love is being psychically wide-open to one another". It is a situation of total emotional vulnerability. Therefore is must be not only the incorporation of the other, but an exchange of selves. Anything short of a mutual exchange will hurt one or the other party." The history of cinema is full of such exchanges (Von Sternberg and Dietrich, Godard and Karina, Antonioni and Vitti), often with destructive results for one or the other involved. Or perhaps not so much emotionally destructive consequences (sometimes we simply don't know), but iconographically destructive ones. Both Vitti and Karina, for example, have almost no iconic traces outside Antonioni and Godard's work, while Antonioni and Godard's oeuvre is much bigger than Vitti and Karina's persona. With Binoche however perhaps the opposite is true: that Bincoche remade herself afresh after Carax's important reinvention, whilst Carax never found an actrice fetiche to equal Binoche. Any director who says "that for films all he needs is "a machine and a girl" may struggle to make cinema without the right girl.
One perhaps oversimplifies, but in auteur films, generally, there is an assumption that the director manipulates the material and shapes the performance around his preconceived expectations: none more so than Antonioni. As Jack Nicholson once proposed: "Antonioni's basic approach to his actors is 'Don't act, just say the lines and make the movements.'" But Carax would seem to be a baggy auteur (like Rivette, Altman and Leigh), who finds what he can from the moment in relation to the relationship he has with the actor. "The thing is to share an experience with people, and that's true for me too. The river (in Les Amants du pont neuf) was 13 degrees below zero when Juliette was water-skiing, and she hardly knew how to do it... I went into the water with them too, and learned how to water-ski. I would never do that with Jean-Paul Belmondo, not that I care so much about his life, just that I wouldn't be sharing the experience." (SS, Sept. 92) The comment brings out the sort of peer equality and directorial input Binoche was looking for from film. It gave her the opportunity to change and develop, while working with a filmmaker she could trust in a medium she had never previously been comfortable with. Of her second and final collaboration with Carax on Les Amants...she said "It was a time of my life that taught me a lot, a sort of analysis which made me grow inside and reach physical and mental limits."
The desire to reach such limits indicates a wish to break free from the constraints of filmmaking, and suggests the spontaneity of the theatre, of painting, of music. It is this exuberant honesty which finds its way into a number of Binoche films, and if we look over her career we see not only how many creative characters she has played, but also how much tension resides in that very creativity. We needn't merely rely on autobiographical comments here, though her confession in The Independent on Sunday that she was so nervous on The English Patient "that she trembled every day for a month" (IoS, 8 Feb, 1998) doesn't do the argument any harm. But whether it is the actress she plays in Code Inconnu (2000), the cellist in Alice et Martin (98) artist in Les Amants or George Sand in The Children of the Century (99), we notice that this isn't simply the usual artistic anguish, but an anxiety that seems alleviated much more by emotional intensity than creative release. Whether we think of those early almost vaudevillian scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as Tomas and Tereza first get together, the romantic water ski-ing in Les Amants..., the parachute jump in Mauvais Sang, or the moment where her lover attaches her to ropes so that she can fly through the air and inspect the mosaics on the wall of a Tuscan church in The English Patient, there seems to be a dimension Binoche explores that is beyond the aesthetic and plays up the importance of the relation with others or another. This is evident when she says of The English Patient, "I revealed something of myself that I didn't know before. I felt free - even though you have marks, lines, rhythm you have to remember. I could still forget about all this, and feel free. It was a real joy." (IoS)
The ostensible creativity (the conventional creative impulse), however, tends to be shut off, frustrated, as if the energy in some of her films is borne out of frustrated inactivity, or the mediocrity of the work, in work that doesn't find a way to expand the being. When Binoche once quoted the French writer Gitte Mallash's "creation can only be a game when one forgets him/herself", it is a wonderful riposte to characters like Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and also Julie in Three Colours Blue, who may or may not be responsible for her husband's musical output. These are characters whose creativity is impeded either through lack of confidence, commercial viability or psychological or physical handicap (and usually a combination). Binoche's characters cannot easily forget themselves because their identities are far from exclusively wrapped up in artistic desire. If Vincendeau can say that with the odd partial exception, "since Tchin's Rendez-vous (85) her characters have all been involved in the arts: actress, painter, art dealer, musician, writer" (SS, Dec. 2000) we might add it is a creativity always in question, compromised, mused over. This gap between being and creativity, at least partially that between creativity and womanhood, is the grey area of self-doubt. In a number of Binoche films this area is made apparent by her characters' relationship to men. How often do we feel that the men are if not worthless, then at least questionably worthy. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being her existence, so often in the film predicated on Tomas's desire, becomes briefly autonomous when she photographs the Russian tanks rolling into Prague in the summer of sixty eight: she closes in on the tanks, on soldiers with guns, and on bodies, constantly clicking away. When Firestone reckons that generally "woman and those men who are excluded from culture, remained in direct contact with their experience - fit subject matter" Tereza seems to find within culture fit subject matter for her experience as she turns creativity into experience. However, when Tereza and Tomas move to Geneva she is left to photograph cacti. Selfhood proves an aberration and her indecision returns. The combination of selfhood, experience and creativity dissolves. She returns to loving her husband more than her work, and this love for another over the aesthetic demands of the self brings with it a vulnerability Binoche has captured more completely than almost any other recent actress. We see similar problems arising in Les Amants..., Three Colours Blue and Code Inconnu. In Les Amants..., after Michele give up homelessness she goes to live with an eye specialist: the creative instinct is blocked, or perhaps just transformed, as she moves from pained artist to dillitantishly engaged in the wake of her new relationship. In Three Colours Blue she has of course allowed her well-known husband, to whom she's been devoted, take all the credit for compositions she may well be responsible for creating. In Code Inconnu, in a role Michael Haneke specifically wrote for her, Binoche plays an actress caught mainly in bad films and television whose relationship with her boyfriend (as well as with her neighbours) gives her more room for interpretive self-expression than her work, no matter the pained problems concerning both. This is where Binoche's vulnerability comes in, even if we increasingly see it transformed from the vulnerability of the emotions to the vulnerability of interpretation. If in Haneke films like Code Inconnu and Hidden her characters' vulnerability is perceptual; in many of her other films it is emotional. If we suggested at the beginning of this piece that there is a double life to Binoche, and that Kieslowski tapped into new possibilities, it resides in Kieslowski extension of Binoche's emotional insecurity into the realm of the subjective, but into a subjectivity that never quite becomes assuredly creative. Caught between often opposing desires (love and art), the self is often exposed and stretched, and Binoche's characters don't have the stereotypically cinematic certitude of that French mainstay the French nymph graduating to neurotic beauty.
That said, we could claim Binoche's early career more typically followed the nymphette expectations, with roles in Godard's Hail Mary (84) and Jacques Rouffio's My Brother in Law Killed My Sister (86). But of the latter Binoche once said that people spent more time "looking at their watches than the things they were supposed to", as if her own lack of engagement was reflected clearly in the boredom of others, and the transformation to something more intimate came a year or so later in Carax's Mauvais Sang. Having ignored her 'inner life' on Ruffio's film, she found it afterwards and dug deeper again on meeting Carax. It was around this time that she fell in love not just with Carax but with cinema as well, and Carax introduced her to the films of Griffith, Dreyer and Vigo. A love of cinema for its creative individualistic possibilities over the technical complexities also freed Binoche from its ruthlessly fucular nature. As the self dissolved into the many images demanded of it, from day to day, from shot to shot, one feels as if Binoche early on clung to a fey, transient belief in herself - she tried to find something with which to hold onto as she took the impish persona from film to film, like a suitcase full of childhood belongings. This is not an entirely accidental simile, when we think of her comment in The Independent that "as a child I think we have suitcases of happiness without knowing where they come from." (Nov. 26th, 1999)
However, it is one thing to have this baggage as emotional containment and quite another as emotional expression. When Binoche said that in Damage the character didn't come from herself, we might ask what roles do suggest creative immanence? If the first life offers the gamine, exemplified perhaps by The Unbearable Lightness of Being, then the second one isn't just walking around with the suitcase but actively unpacking it. What films can we find in this second life, and what does the exploration consist of?
Not The English Patient (96), which still draws upon a Binoche consistent with the gamine, nor La Veuve de Saint-Pierre (2000), which works from her humanity, that luminescent decency her visage offers so well. These films don't so much unpack the suitcase as leave it unopened, demanding Binoche suggests her sensitivity through her face rather than through any interior narrative. The luminous youthfulness and emotional openness of The English Patient are givens, not explorations, while in La Veuve de Saint-Pierre decency is almost metonymic: by casting Binoche in the role of the happily married woman who becomes passionately involved in a convict's case, there is no need to explore her inner feelings. The whole point is that they're unequivocal: she never stops loving her husband, and hers is a platonic passion. Much the same is true of Chocolat (2000), where though she falls in love with Johnny Depp's Irish rogue and musician, it is all part of the passion of her day to day life: she's devoted herself first and foremost to the village and the making of chocolate. If a film like Damage leads an honest actress astray, films like Chocolate leave Binoche too readily within her acting range; they play on that unstraying honesty. No, better to think of films such as Alice et Martin, Code Inconnu as well as those earlier works with Carax, and of course also Three Colours Blue.
It is a relatively small body of work for an actress who has made more than thirty films and who isn't only an amateur painter and art lover herself (as Vincendeau points out) but also someone who occasionally exhibits: she worked on a show in collaboration with designer Christian Fenouillat. Yet Isabelle Huppert, for example, admittedly ten years her senior, has made an astonishingly wide-range of symptomatic rather than metonymic films: symptomatic in the sense that they suggest symptoms in need of exploration over the metonymic that stands in for that exploration. This is partly because Huppert plays 'bad' characters to Binoche's 'good' types. But it is more than that; so often in Huppert's work we find characters for whom motive seems beyond our reach, so that we read her gestures as signs containing not so much hidden motives as inexplicable ones. Whether it is the murder attempt in Merci pour la chocolat, her sado-masochistic urges in The Piano Teacher, or her general air of indifference in something like Coup de Torchon, Huppert offers symptoms that must be read; in much of her work Binoche offers us characters whose metonymic simplicity allows for short-hand. When she smiles fondly in a patterned summer dress, her head at an angle, in The English Patient, there is no symptomatic residue, and though Tim de Lisle notes the only American director she's worked for has been Philip Kaufman, The English Patient (directed by Brit Anthony Minghella) and Chocolat (Sweden's Lasse Hallstrom) are basically American films, and fit well into the mainstream need for metonymic certitude over symptomatic complexity. When we suggest Binoche has so rarely opened the suitcase, we're really talking about the symptomatic versus the metonymic.
Which leaves us then with that small body of work. To bring out what's going on in these films let's contrast Three Colours Blue and Minghella's The English Patient, for which she won a best supporting Oscar. In Blue Kieslowski achieves the symptomatic by constantly finding new expressive angles on the face. As David Thomson proposes in A Biographical Dictionary of Film: "You fancy that Kieslowski has succumbed to this thought, too. How many ways are there of watching her grave face? Are the cheeks carved by love's gaze? Did that hair fall on her head like night?" And yet this doesn't quite seem the relative inexpressivity Antonioni demanded of Nicholson quoted above, but somewhere in between Antonioni's 'felt', correlative camera, where he creates a mise-en-scene for the performance to work within spatially, and Binoche's 'felt' performance - where the character emerges from within herself. As she says in a DVD interview accompanying the film, Kieslowski knew what he wanted to shoot, but didn't always know how the actor would fit into that visual scheme of things. When Binoche says that "most of the time he let me do what I wanted to do", she is pinpointing the difference between Antonioni's cinema of configuration, and Kieslowski's sense of understanding the sense of a performance that possesses an organic interiority. When for example Binoche says that for the moments in the swimming pool Kieslowski "didn't quite know how to film that part", it may have been because where the director films blue, it is Binoche who feels it. It would seem that Kieslowski must find the right mise-en-scene to suggest the melancholy that permeates a film about a woman who has lost her husband and child, but it is for Binoche to find the emotional body language for the part.
Now when Liese Spencer proposes in her Independent interview with Binoche that Carax "credits himself with showing Binoche that she was "a beautiful woman", and Binoche replies "it was more me saying that. Maybe he took what I was feeling..." an apparent difference of opinion needn't be seen as such. It's simply the director filming that beauty and Binoche feeling it, just as Kieslowski creates the idea of the swimming pool with its reflective blue, while Binoche finds the appropriate foetal position as she tries to comprehend her character's sense of grief. Antonioni might be a filmmaker who wants the very body of the actor to be part of the geometry of the mise-en-scene, but it would seem for Kieslowski the actor is the living, feeling aspect of that geometry. Here Binoche manages to be not simply the metonymic object of grief, but the symptomatic subject of grieving, a process that is constantly finding new ways to express the texture of emotion - the performance could come from herself.
Obviously this isn't to pedestal Kieslowski over Antonioni - Antonioni's genius resides at least partly in his capacity to geometrize and abstract cinema from our usual perceptual expectations. Like Bresson, though in very different ways, he radically abstracts, creating fresh metonymies. But what about someone like Minghella, who though a director who clearly loves, respects and admires actors, also admits "I've lost much of my attachment to rehearsal because I've learned that film is nastier medium than we like to believe", saying "in the sense that film is cruelly indifferent to how an effect is achieved. So much so that you can steal a reaction from another moment in a film and it feels totally organic and real." (Minghella on Minghella) But does it, and if Binoche felt extremely nervous, for it was on Minnghella's film that she claimed to be "trembling every day for a month", was it because the performance wasn't organic but made to seem like it was? This isn't to attack Minghella for something which is outside the viewer's jurisdiction - the intricacies and pragmatics of making a film. And anyway Binoche believed Minghella got something more out of her. That remark: "I reveal something of myself that I didn't know before - even though you have marks, lines, rhythm you have to remember, I could still forget about all this, and feel free." (IoS) Yet when we watch the film isn't there something one note about Binoche's performance: metonymically good, virtuous and innocent? Whether it is the way she comes to the dying Almasy's room near the beginning of the film, and almost skips towards the room before pausing in case she'll be interrupting (he's reciting Kipling to a Sikh) or saying how beautiful she finds a note written on the back of a Christmas cracker - "I love that" - Binoche my believe she's stretching herself, but the viewer might sense metonymic over-simplification. To give us some sense of this simplified signification we can think of Minghella's comments in relation to Binoche's character, Hana, and the moment where she and the Sikh soldier are falling in love. "When we did the scene in The English Patient where Hana is swung up into the air in the cathedral to look at the frescoes, I talked to the actors about the intention of the scene." "I had talked about the fact that it was a way of making love without there being sexual content...I talked a lot with the two actors and suggested this was a way for two rather shy and not particularly sexually inclined people to commune." (Minghella on Minghella) But doesn't it also feel like an inverse parallel to the flashback romance between Fiennes and Scott Thomas: that Hana and the soldier can't have a passionate romance because the passion is going on elsewhere? When cinematographer John Seale "had to take the lighting down" because of Binoche's "opalescent skin" (IoS), we might again think it was about contrast: the skin metonymically belongs to passion, and the burnished epidermis thus belongs to Fiennes and Scott Thomas.
So what we're proposing then is that The English Patient finally belongs to Binoche's first cinematic life and the metonymic over the symptomatic, to a performance that Binoche may very well believe stretched her, yet seems much more consistent with the contracting inorganic performances that wouldn't only include Damage and The English Patient, and some of her very early work, but also Wuthering Heights (92), The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Le Veuve de St Pierre etc. Which leaves the second life, the symptomatic performances we find in the Carax films Three Colours Blue, Alice et Martin, as well as Haneke's Code Inconnu and Hidden, performances where we feel the director has allowed Binoche an inner self, while creating a suggestive outer form that leads us to wonder about the character's actions. For example why does Anna in Code Inconnu apparently change her code at the end of the film, resulting in her boyfriend - a photojournalist back from a shoot - no longer able to get into the building? Is Anna in Hidden having an affair with her publisher boss in the film? It is unlikely but not entirely implausible. In such works there is the opposite of kitsch - there isn't that outer layer of ready comprehension, but an interior layer (the performance coming from herself) on the actress's part and a super-impositional, enquiring comprehension on the viewer's. Tim de Lisle may have said "there is nothing fragile about the way Binoche runs her career. She knows what she wants, and it is not Hollywood", and it is perhaps for the very reasons we've outlined above.
However, that doesn't mean an eschewal of Hollywood will necessarily result in textured performances; as we've suggested there have been plenty roles where Binoche's part couldhave been in a Hollywood film. There is perhaps in many actors' careers this split between roles that create expansive possibilities and parts that demand a contraction. Binoche may have said that she didn't take a role in Mission Impossible feeling there was no real purpose in making it, but there are often other roles where even if there is something in the script, for some reason there isn't much on the screen; little that suggests the director managed to extract from the visual image a creative freshness.
Thus when we talk about the double life we're not only talking of career choices, but also career contingencies. Binoche may be as intransigent an actress as Huppert, but where Huppert has made thirty or more interesting films, Binoche has made no more than seven or eight. We might be left wondering paradoxically whether it is finally in a certain integrity that Binoche's limitations lie. When Emmanuelle Beart ended up taking the Mission Impossible role, Binoche found it inexplicable that Beart didn't even read the script. Yet we might be reminded of Huppert and her frequent claims that it was always the director that counted, evident in the numerous and interesting established and young filmmakers she has worked with. Binoche is more 'Hollywood' than she realises - where actors constantly prioritise the screenplay - and while she might have avoided the lure of the Hollywood hills, does she possess finally a conservatism that has limited the interest of the work a more contingent, relaxed attitude might have countered? As Emmanuelle Beart says (Cineaste, XXIX, No1), also invoking the image of the suitcase, "every time I work with a new director it is like packing up my suitcase and visiting a new world. I won't need anything in the suitcase, because the only thing I can do is be aware of where I am and what they want from me." Binoche's suitcase seems rather more pre-packed.
© Tony McKibbin