That’s the Way Love Goes:
An Interview with Juliette Binoche
By Matthew Eng
Midway through Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In (2017), Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) retreats to a restaurant toilet, where she recounts to a friend the dismal state of her love life, including the short-lived bliss of a tryst with her ex. “The next morning, I thought I was so happy, that I was so lucky, that my life was extraordinary,” Isabelle imparts through guttural, gleaming-eyed laughter that snags, without pause, on her next thought. “The next day, I realized it was just the opposite,” she says with a lump in her throat, ducts swiftly pooling with tears still left to cry.
This indelible, breath-catching moment, something like an emotional U-turn or an internal light switch flicked from elation to mortification, occurs in one take and a matter of seconds—blink and you may very well miss the transition. To my mind, this scene reveals the quintessence of the astounding actress who made it possible, whose four decades of performances have given us innumerable moments that function as a visual index for the feelings and sensations, ephemeral and inescapable, that trip us up on our passage from one day, one hour, one minute to the next.
What more is there to say about Juliette Binoche on a website that has dedicated an entire symposium to her singular authorial power? In Both Sides of the Blade, shot throughout the topsy-turvy first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Binoche and Denis continue one of the richest and most rewarding actor-director collaborations in contemporary cinema. Denis enlisted one of her longtime stars, Vincent Lindon, to join Binoche in her adaptation of co-screenwriter Christine Angot’s 2018 novel Un tournant de la vie, centered around the longtime relationship between Binoche’s Sarah, a radio journalist, and Lindon’s Jean, a retired, once-incarcerated rugby player looking to make it as a recruiter. But when François (Grégoire Colin), the man whom Sarah abandoned for Jean years ago, re-enters their lives, desires and resentments long thought suppressed are reawakened, insidiously then brutally disturbing the stability of Sarah and Jean’s coupledom.
At a time when wary audiences are encouraged to return to theaters for high-flying escapist pleasures, Denis—a real maverick—refuses to leave our fraught world behind. Both Sides of the Blade is a pandemic movie in several ways. There are the masks that delimit her actors’ expressive capacities and the up-to-the-minute interviews of Sarah’s Radio France program—with Lebanese educator Hind Darwish and French footballer-turned-activist Lilian Thuram—conversations that open a window onto what the world was living through during this outbreak and have continued to face once the wave(s) settled. But there is also the pandemic-specific impulse to take stock, to narrow one’s gaze and reconsider everything we naively assumed was infallible: individuals, institutions, and ourselves. What follows is a grueling, sensorial immersion in the mysteries of body and heart, a film about how an unforgettable face, a comforting voice, or a familiar caress can galvanize us to self-sabotaging actions, chipping away at the bedrock bonds that have defined and upheld our lives.
Binoche’s ardent, anguished performance serves as our first-hand guide through each escalation in Both Sides of the Blade. Her Sarah presides over an echo chamber of unbidden lust and longing, visibly undone by a need that absence has only intensified, a lack that has vexed a life once assumed whole; she betrays not with headlong abandon but a fervid, mesmerized purpose that culminates in an incantatory, mirror-facing monologue. It is a portrayal of sexual autonomy as heady and propulsive as any ever delineated on screen.
In March, I spoke to Binoche on the occasion of Both Sides of the Blade’s U.S. premiere as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, following its prize-winning premiere at the Berlinale. In a Manhattan hotel room, we discussed the unusual circumstances that produced Denis’s film, the real-world tensions that were channeled into fictional narratives, and her primary goals as an artist committed to cinema. Both Sides of the Blade opens Friday, July 8 in New York.
Reverse Shot: This is your third collaboration with Claire Denis after Let the Sunshine In and High Life. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that she brings a unique and incomparable point of view to each film she makes. You’re certainly no stranger to working with visionary auteurs, whether it’s Denis or Chantal Akerman or Hou Hsiao-hsien or Abbas Kiarostami. But I’m really curious about what it’s like to be directed by Denis, in particular, and whether or not she has influenced your approach to inhabiting a character for the camera.
Juliette Binoche: It’s very hard to know who’s changing you. Life [itself] has so many ways of changing you. With Claire, what I love observing is her approach to a scene because she is not mental. She is not trying to make a scene. She’s trying to reach something she doesn’t know yet but that she’s feeling. And often by an emotion [produced] by the actor’s presence. And so she is with her lens, walking around a little bit, maybe talking with the DP. And, on this film, she was particularly close with the DP [Éric Gautier], not to actors, not to us that much. I think she wanted us to have our [own] stories that she would [then] film. And there were tensions between Vincent and myself. I found him macho and he probably found… [struggling for a word] something wrong with me.
RS: Wrong? I doubt that.
JB: I think so! Yeah, there were tensions. And Claire used them. [They] were part of the film. I mean, it was rough for Vincent and myself. [But] when we saw each other [in] Berlin, we embraced each other because we know that we’ve been through rough times. But, deep down, there’s love. Because life is about love, anyway. [laughs] Claire has an approach that I love and each time I’m very moved by it. She works with her own consciousness very strongly. She likes not knowing everything. Yet when it’s happening, when we’re shooting, she has to fall in love with the scene. Her internal thermometer [on set] is related to her emotions.
RS: Knowing that Both Sides of the Blade was made during the pandemic, there’s something deeply poignant about watching you and Vincent Lindon engage in the kind of intimacy that we’ve been less inclined to take part in for so much of the past two years. What was it like to return to a film set in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic?
JB: It felt odd, obviously, having people with masks around and having a nurse taking care of the cast. It was odd and, of course, sad. But we somehow got used to it. We had to go through the entire film like that, so we accepted it. And I was very happy that Claire integrated the masks into the film, even though we don’t see them that much. That was the reality we were going through. At the same time, we were happy to be working on set again. So, there was the contradiction of joy and sadness working together.
RS: I’m amazed that you and Vincent Lindon had never worked together before this. I get the impression, particularly in the earlier passages, that there is real affection and respect between you both as performers—which only makes you two more believable as a longtime couple. What was it like creating with him such a lengthy and complex history that precedes the narrative itself?
JB: There was an excitement to work together because we hadn’t played together before. There was an excitement to also be in a sort of Bergman situation, where you have to confront showing your animal inside, your lion, in order to survive. So, there was an excitement, and, at the same time, the reality of it was tough. It was a rough shoot. I think we kept everything silent, somehow, in order to have the tension inside the scenes. Also, [we were] working in a very different way. When I got the script, it was very written and precise. And Vincent was actually improvising some of it, sometimes. So, I was lost. I was lost because I didn’t know when he was finished, or he didn’t know when I was finished. So, it brought out a lot of tension in specific scenes. But I think it also helped to bring that atmosphere in the film to life.
RS: The intensity of the later arguments, in which the relationship between Sara and Jean disintegrates, brought to mind John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat. How did you prepare for those scenes and pace yourself when it came time to shoot them, particularly since so much is captured in tight close-up?
JB: You can’t prepare for those scenes. [Laughs] They’re too rough. You can’t prepare in the way that you [usually would] because you’re being revealed by [those] scenes, more than knowing how it’s going to happen—and that’s more interesting. What I knew is that my character needed to have this experience of being free in order to know herself. And it’s a big question, of course, in any couple, when you fall in love again with a past love or a future love. [Sarah] was not prepared for that. All of a sudden, it takes place in her, [the love] comes back to her. And it wouldn’t be right for her to put herself in a place that’s not her [and not act on her feelings]. But at the same time, it’s not right to hurt somebody else. So, the metaphysical question is huge. I think, as actors, we had to risk being lions. When Sarah defends [herself] and [her] freedom, it’s not just a mental idea, it’s a need. The body needs it because it’s part of what it is to be a human being. If you don’t [act on those feelings] and if you’re not being free [then you’re] not being human. You’re being a sheep... Or maybe a sheep can be free. [laughs] It’s being a moral subject or a soldier. You’re not a soldier. It’s your life you have in your hands and inside of you.
RS: You build this beautiful and almost wordless arc where, from the first moment your character sees Grégoire Colin’s on the street, their reunion feels fated, no matter how much Sarah tells herself she is happy with and committed to Jean. She can’t deny that magnetism that pulls her back to François. You have less screen time opposite Colin, another actor you’re working with for the first time, but your characters also share an intense and intricate past that pulls them back together. Did you talk with him or Claire about your characters behind the scenes and flesh out what came before the events we see on screen?
JB: Not at all. What happens is what happens. And that’s what really happens with Claire; there is no discussion between us, as well. You’ve got to trust that meeting in the moment. Because Gregoire has learned the lines and I’ve learned the lines. So, what’s gonna happen between us is what [will be on screen].
RS: In your experience, does making an onscreen relationship convincing require a lot of preparation and getting to know one another? Or is it something that becomes real in front of the camera and doesn’t require a—
RS: Yeah, a preconception.
JB: You can do your homework if you feel like it. But also, [Both Sides of the Blade] came from a book. It’s an adaptation, which Claire’s filming took to another place; it’s not the book anymore. But, no, for this film, we didn’t have discussions at all. I just felt like when Gregoire came… it was a release. [Laughs] I was happy he was coming into the picture! He has this kind of lightness.
RS: There’s something so playful between you two in the film.
JB: Yeah, it was playful because he’s like that in real life as well.
RS: You began acting fairly early and have built such a prolific, adventurous career over the past decades. But are there any specific challenges or parts that you’re eager to undertake at this stage or any filmmakers that you feel drawn to? I'm thinking about you phoning Michael Haneke in the late ’90s and sowing the seeds that eventually brought about Code Unknown and Caché.
JB: Well, I’m doing a film with Trần Anh Hùng. He’s Vietnamese, he lives in France, and did The Scent of Green Papaya (1993). It’s [a film] about food, and we’re going to [make it] in the countryside in France. And he’s very delicate and I think he wants to be close to skins and flavors and smells and sensations, and [focus on] a relationship that is very different from what we see. And it takes place at the end of [the] nineteenth century. And I’m going to be working on a big TV show about the fashion world.
RS: You’re playing Coco Chanel, right?
JB: Yeah. But then after that, I’m doing a film with Lance Hammer. He’s a wonderful director, I think. And so we have a project together, [though] we haven’t met yet.
RS: That’s exciting since he hasn’t directed a film since Ballast .
JB: Yes, it’s very exciting. He seems to be very subtle and yet strong with what he wants and what he doesn’t want. And then I’m going to do a first feature with a French director. I’ve seen his short film that is so beautiful, and he’s writing a beautiful script that I love. And then after, if everything goes well, I’m doing this film with Uberto Pasolini on The Odyssey.
RS: That’s a pretty full slate.
JB: So, I’m not thinking of any other directors. [laughs]
RS: As an artist clearly involved in so many different sectors of the international film landscape, what do you feel is still missing in contemporary cinema? What would you like to see more of?
JB: It’s difficult to answer that question, I think, because great films are like great books or great music—there are not a lot of them. And you don’t know whether it’s because when you find one that’s exceptional, it’s because there are many, many, many [subpar ones] and then one [great one] is coming out. Or whether it’s a lack of prep or lack of skills or lack of work. Sometimes [a film is] too prepared [and] preparation doesn’t [necessarily] make a great film. Why [don’t] we have more great films? One film may be interesting for this [reason] but it doesn’t work for [another reason] so it’s not really complete… That’s a good question, you know.
At the same time, you want to take risks. But the need to make a film has to be so strong. And the skill of making it is often saying, “I want this. I don’t want that. I want this. I don’t need that, why would I have that?” Greatness comes from really finding the expression that is going to be the closest as possible to your vision, but in the most raw way. “Less is more” is often the case in an art form. But at the same time, you have directors who produce these amazing explosions of showing things and it works as well. So, it depends. It’s too much of a big question for me [laughs].
RS: Aside from the logistical complications of filming during COVID and occasionally performing behind a mask, have you found that your own feelings about acting have changed since the pandemic?
JB: For me, there’s one goal as an actor: truth. What is the truth in a situation? Because you’re a reference to people. People are spending time to watch you, so you become their reference of a situation. Or [you] take them to a place, inside, out[side]. If you’re willing to always meet the truth of a situation, but also of yourself, that’s what you’re here for as an actor. Being creative, trying to find new ways—because you don’t want to repeat yourself. You would be like a machine… you don’t want that. You want to find other ways. But if the audience is spending time of their lives watching you, there’s a responsibility. Revealing something truthful through yourself requires engagement. It requires your soul [laughs]. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. Me, when I watch a film, I want to be transformed. Otherwise, why would I spend that time? To be entertained? I don’t understand the need for entertainment. I’m entertained by everything! I don’t need entertainment on the screen. I want to be moved and taken to some place I’ve never imagined I could go. Or I want to reconnect to something in me that I forgot or connect to something I’m discovering or something I need to deal with. That’s, for me, the purpose of films. But I don’t hear that very often, I have to say.
I love laughing when watching films, don’t get me wrong. But I want a commitment to something real and truthful inside of that. I don’t want to play on the surface of things.