One Sunday a couple of months ago, Juliette Binoche bumped into Gérard Depardieu while shopping in a Paris market. It was the first time the two titans of French cinema had met since Depardieu’s bizarre public rant last year, in which he described her as “nothing” and “nobody”.
“I just went up to him and grabbed him,” she says, “and said, ‘Hey, what happened, Gérard? Why are you so aggressive with me? What did I do to you?'”
Binoche turns up her palms and shrugs her shoulders, in that uniquely Gallic expression of frustration. “He said, ‘Oh, I’m stupid. Sometimes I just do that, blah, blah.’ Later, his agent called my agent to say, ‘Gérard is very happy you are reconciled.’ But I never had a problem with him.'” She laughs; her dark eyes – so familiar from the 48 films she has made in her 28-year career – turn steely. “Perhaps I should send him my reviews.”
Her reviews would certainly contradict Depardieu’s low opinion of Binoche’s powers. It’s almost impossible to find a bad word said about her. If a critic pans something she’s in, the reviews usually conclude that Binoche is the only good thing about it. This happened with Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, which won Binoche the award for best actress at Cannes last year; and in 1998, with a production of Pirandello’s Naked in London’s West End.
“There are three very good reasons to rush to see [this],” said critic John Heilpern in the New York Observer of the 2000 Broadway production of Pinter’s Betrayal. “Juliette Binoche, Juliette Binoche, and Juliette Binoche.” While on Broadway she also made quite an impression on Bill Clinton, who is rumoured to have asked Binoche to come and meet him at the White House. She didn’t go, so he came to her – accompanied, perhaps prudently, by Hillary.
Binoche’s latest role is as Miss Julie, the baron’s daughter who seduces her father’s valet in Strindberg’s eponymous 1888 play. A contemporary, French-language version directed by Frédéric Fisbach, which will come to London next year, it was commissioned for the Avignon festival, where I watched it.
We first see Binoche dancing among the trees with the abandon of an Ibiza clubber in a gold Lanvin dress. As the play goes on, her emotionally charged depiction of Miss Julie’s disintegration has me sniffling into my programme – and that’s with only a rudimentary knowledge of French (next year’s Barbican production will, naturally, be surtitled).
Binoche was born into the theatre. Her mother was an actor and drama teacher, her father a theatre director; she studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique in Paris, one of France’s foremost drama schools, with the acting coach Vera Gregh.
At 21, she won a role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary, a controversial contemporary reworking of the Virgin birth, which kickstarted her film career. Mademoiselle Julie is her first theatre production in more than a decade.
So why did she decide to return to the stage? Binoche ushers me on to the terrace of her rented Avignon flat – walls clad in bright bougainvillea, a shaded table laid for breakfast – and wrinkles her nose. “I never left it,” she says, as a church bell tolls in the background. “But the joy of feeling the interaction between the audience and the actors is so sensual. You create a whole moment, just through listening.”
Binonche said yes to Mademoiselle Julie because she liked the French translation that Fisbach showed her (“It was so limpid,”), and because she relished the challenge of getting under the skin of Strindberg’s characters. “[Strindberg] is a nihilist as well as a mystic, a scientist as well as a writer. And he’s very chauvinistic, as well as sometimes absolutely loving women. It’s the same with the characters. They say something at the beginning, and at the end it’s the total opposite. Emotions are very much like this; they’re not facts.”
Down and out in Paris
For each character she plays, Binoche prepares intensely. She slept rough on the streets of Paris before playing a homeless woman in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) and spent months learning to play the violin for her role in the 1998 film Alice et Martin. Ahead of her star turn in Chocolat – the 2000 adaptation of Joanne Harris‘s novel, one of Binoche’s few forays into Hollywood – she turned up unannounced at Harris’s house in Barnsley and stayed for the weekend. So how did she prepare for her role as Julie? “Oh, I went to see Strindberg.” She laughs wickedly. “He’s an interesting character. I wouldn’t like to be his wife or lover.”
In the past, Binoche has said she prefers working with independent auteurs – Kiarostami; Krzysztof Kieślowski; Michael Haneke – rather than Hollywood directors owing to her frustration with the way mainstream American films depict women. When I ask about this, she gives an exasperated sigh.
“That’s a very old question for me,” she says. “That’s a very old way of thinking.”
But what about the fact that we still see so few women, especially over the age of 40 – Binoche is 47 – in leading roles? She interrupts, raising her voice. “That debate has been there for ages! It’s boring! We’re kind of feeding this thought in talking about it. If we talk about something else, people will think differently, and we’ll change it. Because we’re responsible, as women – journalist, actress, whoever – just to move on.”
Does she consider herself a feminist? “No,” she says. “Aware of my feminine and masculine parts, sure. [But that term] just puts people in a stereotyped way of thinking. I think creation and doing, being active, is more important than talking about it.”
Binoche certainly applies this principle to her own career: she’s an accomplished painter, and learned to dance in four months for In-i, a show she created with the British dancer-choreographer Akram Khan. In-i premiered at London’s National theatre in 2008, one of the few times in Binoche’s career when her reviews were less than superlative (the Guardian’s Judith Mackrell called her dance debut “impressive”, but thought the show “overextended”).
“London was quite rough,” she says. “It was a painful experience, on some levels, but it’s been really fulfilling.” Since then, “I move on stage differently. The more you act, anyway, the more you live, your perception of life becomes more and more accurate. It’s like peeling onions, you know? You’re peeling and peeling until you . . .” She pauses, searching for the right English word. “Try to arrive at a sort of transparency.”
As ever, Binoche has a busy few months ahead. After Avignon, Mademoiselle Julie will tour France. She recently finished a couple of days’ shooting for Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel, alongside Robert Pattinson. She’ll begin work on another film, under director Bruno Dumont, in the new year. “It’s about [the sculptor] Camille Claudel,” she says, “during the period when she was interned. It’s going to be interesting, because it’s about a woman and creation. In answer to your earlier question: women are so creative. They’re born creative, not only because they have babies, but because there’s a blossoming to find inside us. Especially,” she adds with a broad smile, “around 40 years old.”
There’s a refreshing candour about Binoche; a determination to resist the easy categorisation that so often entraps famous actors, especially women. It makes me wonder whether she finds it frustrating to be continually valued for her (admittedly extraordinary) looks. Her early willingness to remove her clothes for films such as 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being – a decision Binoche has since said she regrets – can’t have helped matters. You get the feeling, reading what the predominantly male critics of theatre and film have to say about her, that her sexual allure has often made as much of an impression on them as her talent.
When I ask her about this, however, Binoche shakes her head firmly.
“No,” she says. “I don’t feel this [frustration]. When you really put your heart in the work, you don’t think of how you look. And I think that’s the beauty of it.”
• Mademoiselle Julie will be at the Barbican, London EC1 (020-7638 8891; barbican.org), 20-29 September 2012.