I first heard about the great Juliette Binoche when she made her English-language breakthrough in Louis Malle’s Damage. As a teenager, I can’t say I had much interest in yet another French sexpot who was being sold as the arthouse Sharon Stone in the Eurotrash version of Basic Instinct. After seeing the film, however, I was immediately drawn to the arresting qualities of an actor who had immense physical appeal and a good deal of complicated, bewitching resonance. The next few years saw Juliette Binoche expand on that power, triumphing in Kieslowski’s Blue before her upset win at the Academy Awards, for her superbly delicate work in The English Patient over the predicted sympathy vote for Lauren Bacall, made her a household name.
The Criterion Channel has had a collection of films starring Juliette Binoche for a while, some have already been taken down, but I asked my fellow That Shelf contributors Courtney Small and Pat Mullen to help me rank what’s still there:
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
Bil Antoniou: Up there with her greatest accomplishments on film, Binoche gives a performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s first foray (of only two, sadly) outside Iran. Certified Copy earned her a well deserved Cannes prize (despite the grumblings of people who noticed she was on that year’s poster). She and William Shimell travel the Italian countryside looking for classical artworks that are copies of other pieces and, while doing so, act out a relationship that we’re never sure we know the truth or meaning of. Binoche holds your gaze for two solid hours as Kiarostami’s rock-solid control makes her every emotional turn a fascinating voyage of discovery.
Courtney Small: A wonderful meditation on the notion of art, Kiarostami’s film is a masterwork. It is one of those films that evokes new emotions and thoughts with each viewing.
Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)
BA: My favourite Binoche performance, and a project that she inspired when she wrote Michael Haneke a letter telling him she wanted to work with him. Haneke, knowing her skill for being both intense and intensely sympathetic, creates a multi-tiered landscape of experiences that show off her range, playing an actress who gets to perform on stage and screen while, in real life, witnessing the tensions created by the increasing xenophobia in Paris.
The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax, 1991)
BA: Binoche once again teamed up with Carax for a film that is far more famous for the madness of its production than its content, including a runaway budget situation more suited to science-fiction and Harvey Weinsein’s suppression of it for eight years. It’s surprising, then, to end up with a harsh but beautiful romance between two artists who are living on the streets while succumbing to their physical ailments. The box art made it look like a romantic comedy…so you can imagine what I did to the atmosphere of the movie-night party that I brought it to. (“It’s got the gal from Chocolat!”)
CS: Leos Carax gained a whole new generation of fans with his kinetic film Holy Motors. While this film is a more emotionally charged work, it is equally deserving of a following thanks in part to Binoche’s brilliant performance.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
BA: While not a movie I think is flawless, this Olivier Assayas curiosity struck it big with critics when it was released and it’s easy to see why. (I believe I amused my friend by referring to its incongruities by calling it the “Arthouse Interstellar.”) It works best when it focuses on the tension between Binoche as a famous actress and Kristen Stewart as her young assistant, exploring issues of aging in the arts and commercial success versus artistic pursuits. It spins out of control when Stewart leaves the screen and we’re treated to an overextended coda with Chloë Grace Moretz, but the film feels like something you’ve never seen before, which from Assayas has become very rare of late.
CS: There are several films about aging actors coping with an unforgiving industry, but Clouds of Sils Maria is one of the best. The interactions between Binoche and Kristen Stewart are worth the watch alone.
Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
BA: Haneke’s best film, a tale of paranoia and xenophobia about the simple yet terrifying situation of a couple who keep receiving videocassettes on their doorstep, showing surveillance footage of the outside of their home. The dramatic weight of this one is on co-star Daniel Auteuil and his interactions with Maurice Benichou, but Binoche is essential as the wife who operates somewhat as the conscience that Auteuil works so hard to ignore.
CS: A mesmerizing film that stills feels extremely relevant over a decade later, Caché finds Haneke working in top form. What I love about this film is the way one’s view constantly changes with each new revelation.
Rendez-Vous (André Téchiné, 1985)
BA: Juliette Binoche made her debut in leading roles in 1985, among the most prominent her first collaboration with André Téchiné (and Olivier Assayas on the script). Binoche stars as a young woman who is recruited to play Juliet on stage, possibly before she’s ready for it, and ends up in the crosshairs of many ardent men. Alice and Martin would prove to be a much more powerful combo for the actress and director, but this one is passionate and smart.
Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986)
BA: This early Leos Carax curiosity, made while he and Binoche were still in a relationship, isn’t deeply inspiring but it is a fun trip back to ’80s Euro styles. Denis Lavant gets involved in a heist after his father’s suicide and the job gets tricky after he falls in love with mob boss Michel Piccoli’s girlfriend. Carax is always worth the effort, but I’m more excited but everything that came after.
Elles (Malgorzata Szumowska, 2011)
BA: The weakest of the bunch in this collection, Szumowska’s intelligent premise has Binoche as a magazine editor interviewing two sex workers. In learning about how they profit from enacting a male fantasy of a reductive female role, she finds herself rebelling against the expectations placed upon her at home, including the ones she places on herself. Binoche is exquisite as always, but Szumowska’s script is all issues and very little drama or conflict, it’s not as sensual and instinctive as her film In The Name Of, about a priest falling in love with a Christlike young man.
Pat Mullen: I don’t have a subscription to the Criterion Channel since I blow all my money on the sales at Unobstructed View (and Barnes and Noble when I have to). For the Blu-ray purists among us, though, there are several good Juliettes to add to the Criterion shelf as a bonus.
Trois couleurs (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993-1994)
Blue is the Binoche show of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy, and easily the best. I’m completely ashamed to admit that I only have the film on some pathetic Wal-Mart set, so huge thanks to Bil for reminding me that my Criterion shelf needs a long overdue upgrade.
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008)
There are some great Binoche/Assayas collaborations on Criterion, but this film is their best. A sumptuously shot essay on the memories embedded within art and culture, as well as the values we assign to material things over family, Summer Hours features one of Binoche’s most natural performances amidst a stellar ensemble.
Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis, 2017)
Proving that some things do get better with age, Binoche gives a rich and fully-lived in performance as a 50-something Parisian divorcée dabbling in love and sex. The film’s final scene, a simple shot/reverse-shot exchange between Binoche and Gérard Depardieu, is like falling in love. (And perhaps the most egregious use of title cards since Touch of Evil.) The film is also available to stream on Hoopla – not in a swanky Criterion transfer, but it’s free with your library card!