Broaching personal matters in an interview can be tricky. Laying the groundwork, not appearing prurient, choosing your words carefully so as not to spook your subject – all these elements are crucial. They are also completely unnecessary in the case of Juliette Binoche. We are fewer than five minutes into our Zoom call and already the 58-year-old actor is leaning forward in her seat in an office in Paris and trawling through intimate memories. “I fell in love with two men in my 20s,” she says, matter of factly. “It was unbearable. Quite unbearable.”
This is apropos Both Sides of the Blade, her third film with the sensual, uncompromising director Claire Denis. Binoche plays Sara, a radio talkshow host torn between two brooding men: her boyfriend, Jean (Vincent Lindon), an ex-con and former rugby player, and her erstwhile lover, François (Grégoire Colin). Sara and Jean have an apparently harmonious relationship, but the magnetism of François, and the past, proves impossible to resist. “Here we go again,” Sara tells herself. “Love, fear, sleepless nights. The phone at my bedside. Getting wet.”
All it takes for Binoche to connect this situation to her own past is one preliminary question about whether she comprehended Sara’s behaviour. How frank of her to go straight for the intimate revelations. How French.
“It’s an impossible triangle because everybody feels hurt,” she says. “Some people are able to do it. I was not. It was a destructive situation, and you need courage. So yes, I totally understood the damage it can cause. For each of us, it was painful, and you can’t stop it because that’s how it is. It’s as if you have to be in front of a dragon and you’ve just got to face it, you know?” Why couldn’t she choose between the two men in her life? “We love in different ways, if I may say,” she replies. “It’s about reaching a need inside you. When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t understand why it’s happening.”
I think of the advice given to the 14-year-old Binoche by her mother’s artist friend when she couldn’t decide whether to pursue acting or painting. “Juliette: choose to do everything!” she told her. In that instance, she did. She still paints, and her work can even be seen in some of her movies: the raging, rhapsodic 1991 love story Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, directed by her then-partner Leos Carax, in which she plays a homeless artist, or Words & Pictures, from 2013, where she stars opposite Clive Owen as an art teacher whose rheumatoid arthritis forces her to find new ways to paint.
A love triangle, though, is not the same as a career. How did she resolve that situation? “I separated out of guilt from one of the men, and then it just stopped with the other one after a while. I think because I had to destroy the relationship somehow. There was something that I pushed away from me, probably. I don’t know; it’s not as rational as that. We all have polarities. We can be in love and then the loved one has become your enemy.” The idea is reflected, she says, in the new film’s English title, (Avec amour et acharnement in its original French – literally With Love and Fury). “It could mean the polarity between female and male. I know it’s a title Claire loved. ‘Blade’ is such a strong word: it can kill, but in the Chinese tradition you are a master when you know how to cut well with a blade.”
Even as Sara is planning assignations with François, she is persuading Jean that there is nothing afoot, that she and him are made for each other. Why put them both through this torture? “She must,” says Binoche decisively. “She is facing a need in herself, a sexual call, like a wave of heat, perhaps of love. It must be gone through. She must understand what it is. If she doesn’t do that, she would be putting herself in parentheses, or … in the fridge! It’s what makes her human and truthful.”
She sounds dazed with admiration. “Allowing herself to go through that is amazing because many of us would say: ‘No, it’s too destructive,’ or, ‘I’m going to lose what I have already’. You become conservative before you even start. But when such a big wave is coming, it’s hard not to say yes to it, I think. She is asking to have that freedom to be herself, not knowing what the result will be. That’s so brave. And terrible! I know how painful and dangerous it can be.”
The risk-taking extends to choosing roles, too. “I don’t think you try to put yourself into difficult situations,” she says. “But creation is about going to a new place. Facing difficulty. I try not to repeat myself because it feels like you’re going to die!” She laughs, rolling her eyes at her dramatic choice of language.
In her 40-year career, more conventional films such as Chocolat and The Horseman on the Roof tend to be outnumbered by riskier enterprises, from her three urgent, restless films with Carax (Mauvais Sang and The Night Is Young are the others) to her dry-eyed study of grief in Three Colours Blue (“No tears, never any tears,” the director Krzysztof Kieślowski told her) and her tender, Oscar-winning performance as a nurse in wartime Italy in The English Patient.
If anything, she has become more adventurous with age. Look at her mysteriously mutable work in Abbas Kiarostami’s puzzling Certified Copy, for which she won the best actress prize at Cannes, and Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, where she and Kristen Stewart have a hypnotic rapport as, respectively, a revered actor and the PA on whom she depends. There are her two jangling thrillers for Michael Haneke (Hidden and Code Unknown), as well as Bruno Dumont’s twisted, oddball comedy Slack Bay, her first foray into slapstick. All this and Antigone on stage for Ivo van Hove.
Perhaps it is the nonchalance with which she moves between those innovative projects and mainstream detours such as Ghost in the Shell, Godzilla and the forthcoming Paradise Highway (in which she plays a bandana-wearing long-distance trucker named Sally) that has left her with less of a daredevil reputation than, say, Isabelle Huppert. Or simply the fact that she seems not to have put her neck on the line as definitively as Huppert did with Elle or The Piano Teacher.
Both Sides of the Blade, which reveals Binoche at her most intense and unreadable, may be the film to change that. If any director could facilitate such a transformation it would be Denis, who has already cast her as an artist seeking love in Let the Sunshine In, and in High Life as a crazed doctor engaged in reproductive experiments with death-row prisoners deep in space. “Douching is for amateurs!” she declares in one scene; in another, Robert Pattinson christens her “the shaman of sperm”.
Binoche admires her director’s curious, inquisitive approach. “It’s the way Claire looks for the shot,” she says. “She chooses it with her feelings, rather than thinking ‘wide shot, closeup’. It’s not logical. That I like.” Denis said in 2017 that Binoche is “sexier than any young girl on the red carpet”. Can the actor feel that when she is being directed by her? “Well, if I feel her love then I feel sexy. You feel more confident. You want to push yourself forward.”
Her director’s forthright nature seems to embolden her. The most outre scenes in High Life (2018) involve “the box”, a sexy Tardis inside which carnal pleasure is dispensed, a bit like the Orgasmatron from Sleeper. “It was so mad!” gasps Binoche. “How can you even think of that in a script? But we did it with humour and love and care, I would say, and freedom. You have to trust and go for it.” Another scene required her to carry a sperm sample. “I asked Claire, ‘But how am I going to hold it?’” Her voice sounds shrill and panicky. “She said: ‘Like this.’” She presents her hands serenely, palms upwards. “And I thought: ‘Ah, of course. This is such a fantasy of hers!’” She stops just short of giving herself a face-palm, perhaps still mindful of her imaginary cargo.
Shooting with the grave, grizzled Vincent Lindon in Both Sides of the Blade wasn’t half as much fun. “With Vincent, it was not always easy. As actors, we are quite different. But I bet Claire knew that.” She wags a playful finger at the webcam. “I don’t think she was naive!” What was the problem? “I felt Vincent was insecure. And because of that, he was trying to control the situation. Some women would retreat, but I felt as the character I had to confront him. I don’t know Vincent. But I know we had to confront each other and that was not easy for either of us.”
At least it wasn’t her first time putting a titan of French cinema in his place. Shortly after Binoche won her prize at Cannes in 2010, she was rudely disparaged in the press by Gérard Depardieu, who asked: “Please can you explain to me what the mystery of Juliette Binoche is meant to be?” before concluding that “she has nothing – absolutely nothing”.
Did he apologise? “Hmm,” she says ruefully. “About three months after he made those declarations, I bumped into him in the street and I said: ‘Gérard – why were you so mean to me?’ He said: ‘Oh forget about it, I say stupid things. Don’t take it personally.’ I told him: ‘OK but at the end of the day, I had to deal with it. And it’s really not cool.’ He said: ‘Well, I’m just upset with the directors you’re working with.’”
Her mouth is agape now. “I asked him: ‘What are you talking about?’ He said: ‘Oh, Leos Carax and Michael Haneke. You’re working with these perverse directors.’ Then he corrected himself: ‘Well, OK, Michael did The White Ribbon, and that was quite good …’” She looks confused, incredulous and exasperated all at once: the precise expression of someone expecting an apology only to be met with meaningless waffle. She raises a hand as if to say: Enough! “I said: ‘OK, OK – goodbye.’ Then as I walked off, I realised: ‘Perverse directors? He worked with Maurice Pialat and Bertrand Blier! What is he talking about?’”
She has no illusions about what prompted the outburst. “I think he was feeling jealous because I’d just received the award in Cannes. He was hurt because I had made him deal with too many things.” It was especially bruising because Depardieu had been one of her first points of contact in the industry. As an aspiring performer, she had visited the set of his historical drama Danton in 1982, three years before her breakthrough role at the age of 20 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary.
“I was 17 and still at school,” she recalls. “My father’s friend was working on Danton. Gérard came to me and said: ‘What are you doing here?’ I told him: ‘I’m just observing, I want to be an actress.’ He said: ‘Work on your classics.’ So he was such an important figure in my life. And then all these years later he … how do you say?” She’s miming a left hook to her own chin. Punch? “Yes! He punched a fist in my face. And it injured me.”
Denis brought the two actors together in the glorious final scene of Let the Sunshine In, with Depardieu as a fortune teller urging Binoche on to greater romantic exploration. “We had a very nice time,” she smiles. Then her mood turns serious. “You have to forgive. Love is stronger and it transforms everything. That is just a fact. And to stay in love makes me happier than to stay with anger or frustration. Even though Gérard has had a huge career, there’s still a little boy inside. And we must all take care of our little ones.” Trust her to see both sides of the blade.
• Both Sides of the Blade is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema now. Read the review here.