Juliette Binoche doesn’t seem like the sort of actress who would display awards on her mantelpiece, but if she does, she may soon need to have it reinforced.
The 46-year-old was the darling of the Cannes Film Festival in May, when she won the Best Actress award on her own soil for Certified Copy, an intriguing tale set in Tuscany about a couple who start out as strangers.
Presumably the award is somewhere near the golden statuette she picked up at the Oscars in 1997 for Best Supporting Actress in The English Patient.
But whether they’re being polished every day or sitting in a shoe box, Binoche insists the accolades mean a lot.
“I didn’t get any prizes at school,” she says in her sultry French accent, giggling raucously, “so it’s a big revenge after all that time. I was always, you know, not the last one, but almost. I didn’t fit in with a scholarly kind of mind, so it’s an irony that suddenly I have all these prizes.”
“It’s fulfilling in a special way because acting is abstract - at the end of the day you have nothing. When you’re making furniture, you can at least see it. So when you’ve got [an award], some kind of object you can touch, suddenly it’s like, ‘This is real, I did go through that’. But I don’t hang on to the past, I’m more about the present.”
Binoche’s ability to be in the now was what attracted Iranian writer/director Abbas Kiarostami to her. He asked her to visit him in Teheran and told her the story of a woman and man, that would turn out to be his plot for the film.
Opera singer William Shimell plays an author called James Miller who has come to Italy to promote his latest book, Certified Copy, an argument that in art, a copy can be just as valuable as the original. Binoche, as simply ‘She’, arranges to meet James and the pair have an immediate chemistry as they discuss the philosophy behind his work.
She takes him to a village and they have coffee at a cafe, where a woman mistakes James for her husband. The remainder of the film sees them play out passive-aggressive roles of ignored wife and petulant husband.
Binoche admits she had misgivings about the role.
“First, when I read the script, I thought, ‘How am I going to play this neurosis?’ You speak to someone, he’s a stranger and suddenly he becomes your husband, how is it possible?”
“Then suddenly I realised it was about being true in every moment. So it didn’t matter if he was a stranger or her husband, it was just living what she was going through and making it real.”
In the film, it appears that Binoche’s character is bringing up her son by herself and that James is in fact an absentee father and husband.
“She has a lot of frustration because she’s not being seen, heard, loved or held. There’s so much expectation and it’s not coming, so there’s disappointment, but it doesn’t mean there’s no hope,” says the actress.
“As women, we can be the ones initiating men into their emotional world, which is not always easy for them to reach. In a way we’re helpful, but if it doesn’t work, we feel terrible. It’s killing us and that’s why she pushes it as much as she can until she gets a response.”
Talking to Binoche, who has a son, Raphael, with scuba diver Andre Halle and daughter Hana with actor Benoit Magimel, it’s easy to see she’s a true artist who needs to act in order to express herself. The word “create” comes up time and again and she has sought out directors who will allow her to be free.
“Abbas said to me once, ‘Why did you do this job? You don’t want more money, you don’t want to be famous, so why are pulling yourself to pieces in front of the camera?’ The joy for me is really that moment of creation, when you don’t belong to yourself, and he allowed me that much space to express the feminine and masculine part of me.”
“Life is for taking risks, but the tendency in life is fear and making sure you have a structure around you. I think you need to break all the structures possible because that’s when you create.”
It’s perhaps this fear of structure and restriction that has deterred Binoche from signing up to the Hollywood way of life. She wowed mainstream audiences in The English Patient and again with Chocolat and could have had movie bosses eating out of her palm. But she knows better.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a real relationship with Hollywood, I never thought I would,” she says. “I’ve never been in any system and that was a choice. I didn’t move there, I didn’t try and sustain a sort of rhythm to make sure I was making a film regularly there. I just met good directors I felt like working with.”
“Being fulfilled as an artist is really about getting into a specific world and sharing it. For me the excitement is being on a set and feeling the common vision and discoveries. And to have this inside world you’re putting across through your body and spirit.”
Whereas many actresses in their 40s struggle to win roles, ageism is not an issue for Paris-born Binoche, known fondly by the French as ‘La Binoche’.
“I never felt the lack of good roles but I also went to see directors who want to shoot human beings and not ideas of women. I’m not frightened. There are many stories in life.”
Binoche’s own story began with her teacher, director and actress mother Monique.
“She brought me to the arts because she loved them and I was lucky to have a mother like her giving me the opportunity to go and see plays and concerts. She was very in need of arts, so I was gulping, drinking everything I could because it was such a release to have a field where I felt I belonged.”
She’s now encouraging her children to find their creative niche: “They need to have some rules, but at the same time, the world is their own and they’ve got to grow into their creativity. I’ve made a special room at home for art and my daughter always goes there, but my son doesn’t like it.”
“He refuses to go to museums, but I love them, so he’s really different,” she says, laughing again. “But he goes and sees his own movies, he has his own world and I think it’s important that he wants to be different. We’ll see how it grows.”