When we think about actors who have been mavericks for their entire careers, blazing their own trails and doing incredible work along the way, Juliette Binoche must come to mind. From her start in film, starring in legendary director Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary through to present day, Binoche has been uncompromising in her quest to work with directors that she admires and do work she believes in, while remaining outside of the established film worlds. “I hate any system. Hollywood is a system. The French film industry is a system. I’m an outsider everywhere because I’ve always rejected the system,” she explained, in front of a rapt audience in the Glenn Gould Studio on Saturday afternoon.
TIFF CEO Piers Handling served as interviewer, interspersing questions with clips from her films. Michael Haneke’s Caché, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Krystof Kieslowski’s Bleu, Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; her resumé is a laundry list of some of the best films of the last 30 years directed by the crème de la crème of auteurs. How does she pick such plum roles? “I meet someone, or I’ve admired their work, and we have a conversation. But sometimes I can just tell by their soul or their eyes that we’re going to work well together.”
This philosophical, often metaphysical air permeates her discussion of her craft as well. She frequently invokes phrases such as “the divine,” “the muse” or “incarnation” to describe how she embodies her roles:
“The actor is an antenna, a conduit between real life and the divine. The information we get is so special. It is our job to relay that information through performance, and show the word something new.”
As she describes, a performance comes from within her first, then from outside. She cannot simply invoke a certain emotion on command. “I have no control over the life inside me. The emotions are there, inside, and I can tap into them, but I don’t control which emotion I tap into.”
For someone who discusses freely discusses such a deep subject, she is surprisingly light and full of good humour. She jokes about her ageing, her relationship with some difficult actors and her indulging in certain substances. She comes off as whip-smart, and was quick to knock any of Handling’s questions which appeared clichéd. When asked about the difference between working with female directors over males, she replied, “There is no difference.” Questioning her occasional foray into light comedies, such as Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, she replied, “I don’t think there’s a difference between a tragedy and a comedy. They are enmeshed, just as in life. I don’t classify something as a tragedy or a comedy. An actor needs to bring both sensibilities to their performance.”
Ultimately, what has been the key to her success? “Trust. It comes down to trust between me and the director. If there is trust, then there is a great performance.” Such a simple ingredient for such an illustrious career.
Juliette Binoche can currently be seen in Clouds of Sils Maria by Olivier Assayas, which screened this weekend at the festival. (Cameron Bryant)