Rising Above
Julien Allen on Juliette Binoche in Rendez-vous

Here’s a dramatic scene. Two men enter a bedroom, where a young woman is asleep. One of the men, who is aggressively handsome, struts confidently. He leads the other man—who has softer features and is shy and hesitant—to the end of the bed, where they both sit. The confident man flamboyantly sweeps away the duvet, exposing the woman’s naked form, face down. They both look at her backside for a few moments in silence. The shy man dares not fix his gaze, while the confident man smirks, then thrusts his hand in a proprietary, grabbing motion in between the sleeping woman’s legs, his thumb on her right buttock, his fingers apparently on her genitalia. She stirs. He then grabs his reluctant friend’s hand and puts it in the same place. She wakes up, bewildered, sits up on the bed, pulls the sheets toward her and demands to know what’s going on. In an instant, the sexual and emotional degradation of the scene gives way to something very different: while asleep and naked, reduced to corporeal form, she had no agency; now that she’s awake, the focus shifts violently back to her. Outnumbered, she still seems to command the action: she is as defiant as she is disoriented. The tables seem to have turned, as they so often do in André Téchiné’s 1985 film Rendez-vous, whenever Juliette Binoche’s face is in the frame.

Rendez-vous was Binoche’s debut feature role, and what she brings most crucially to it is that—if one can risk the oxymoron—she is unafraid of fear. She was 20 at the time of shooting, and her callowness is tangible and authentic throughout, but never once does Binoche take a backward step in her performance. Instead she drives the action forward, taking charge of the tempo. In her first entrance, while other characters meander, she is rushing, bumping into someone and causing them to drop their papers; thereafter the film unfurls at a disarming rate, events cutting and swerving into each other with abstract rapidity.

Binoche’s character, Nina, remains at the epicenter of the tragic emotional storm that unfolds. She is a young, eager actress playing a young, eager actress, so the conditions are perhaps ideal, but Rendez-vous deals in extremities, and the demands made of her are substantial. Téchiné, a director openly adored by numerous female actors (Isabelle Adjani, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart) and a far more compassionate artist than the tone and feel of Rendez-vous might imply, once confessed—on the subject of the more brittle Adjani and her experience on 1976’s Barocco—that part of his role as a director was to “provide assistance to persons in danger,” which is to say that his scenarios might invite danger, but that he holds himself up as the pastoral caregiver to those who have the skill and guts to enter the fray.

The above mentioned scene is one of many in Rendez-vous to mix eroticism with danger and discomfort. The confident man, Quentin (Lambert Wilson) is an actor who has lost his mind after a failed suicide pact with a fellow actress that killed her and left him alive. The shy man, Paulot (Wadeck Stanczak), is, almost humorously, a real-estate agent. Both are in lust with Binoche’s character. This triangle becomes a quadrangle with the late arrival of Jean-Louis Trintignant, playing a middle-aged theater director called Scrutzler, who is a barely concealed alter ego for Téchiné himself (though the train journey taken by Binoche from Toulouse to Paris in the opening titles is resonant of Téchiné’s own youthful journey towards his cinematic destiny).

In most of the film’s numerous sequences pertaining to sex, it is Nina herself who initiates or determines the dynamics. She strips, stony-faced, to humiliate her suitors, then, while aggressively offering her body to Paulot (railing at him for expecting sex in return for offering her a place to stay) her stoic façade cracks and she cannot stop herself from crying, an impulse she immediately defeats by summoning anger once more. Earlier, when Quentin breaks down her door, the camera catches her deftly removing her shoe behind her back as he lunges for her, in a flash bringing the heel down onto his forehead, creating a bloody bullet hole. An apparent ingénue and flibbertigibbet, she is flighty, reckless, preyed upon, and vulnerable, but so utterly mesmeric—and, it must be said, manipulative—as to drive all the principal men in the film literally mad. Quentin commits suicide; Paulot and Scrutzler have a long fight in the rain; Paulot’s own descent into madness takes the form of an attempted lurch into machismo, followed by a corrective retreat into childhood pain and fear.

Rendez-vous was a jumping-off point: for Binoche, of course; but also for screenwriter Olivier Assayas, as this was his first produced work, and for Téchiné himself, an experienced director of female leads but who had until this point confined himself to more demure subject matter (such as 1979’s The Brontë Sisters with Adjani and Isabelle Huppert). This friend of Roland Barthes, student of Lacan, and artistic progeny of Truffaut was delving into the pit for the first time with Rendez-vous, unearthing a precious stone in the process. When Assayas was doing press for Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014 he pointedly thanked Téchiné for creating Rendez-vous and especially for both involving him and discovering (or perhaps “uncovering”) Binoche in the process, thus engendering the character that might certainly have become Clouds Maria Enders.

It’s a fascinating prism through which to watch Rendez-vous. Binoche’s own career in the 30-year period between the two films was marked, tellingly, by confrontation, but not in the sense of diva-ish behavior or public fallings out. Her high-profile recent spat with Depardieu, for example, was entirely unilateral on his side—he stated, unprompted, that as an actress she offered “nothing.” (She politely declined to flatter such a comment with a response; they shared the screen in Claire Denis’s 2017 Let the Sunshine In, but tellingly, they don’t share a single frame.) Binoche’s real confrontations were more productive: they lay in her requirement vis-à-vis her male directors—Téchiné, Doillon, Godard, Carax, Kieslowski, Gitai, Haneke, Hou, Kiarostami, Dumont—that she be afforded creative parity on every set. Drawn to auteurs whose DNA spelled creative control, recognizing that her role was distinct from theirs, she was nevertheless not to be subjugated, and certainly not to her male costars. She was once told by Huppert to “work against the director, transgress what he asks you for.” In that sense, Rendez-vous, in which Binoche, despite being outgunned and confronted by powerful men, retains her full liberty of expression, could be every bit as much of a dramatic calling card as the existential struggle of Let the Sunshine In or the sexual depredations of High Life, both of which are foreshadowed here. Binoche’s commitment to this cause was underlined by a document she submitted in 2007 for a major feature in Cahiers du cinéma: an extract of an essay on acting by George Sand with the following statement highlighted (amongst others): “I don't pretend that actors are generally superior to the writers who work for them; but I do say that some are.”

In a rare moment of complete candor, her compagnon de route Assayas would later divulge that her ensemble experience in his 2008 Summer Hours, while satisfying in terms of its dramatic result, was less comfortable for Binoche than a project like Sils Maria, where she had asked him for comparative solitude and got it. Less brazen than simply wanting to top the bill, Binoche, motivated, in the words of CahiersJean-Michel Frodon, “not by ego but by a quest for adventure,” has an innate understanding of her strongest place: alone at the center of the drama. (This is true in her French-language projects, at least—the contrast with her American ensemble work is telling.) This is dramatized early in Rendez-vous by her character’s show-stealing appearance as a maid in a feeble French farce at the “Théâtre de Chocolat,” a production she later walks out on, mid-performance. Her next role—offered to her on a plate by an enraptured Trintignant—is Shakespeare’s Juliet(te).

Is Nina actually prostituting herself? Is Wilson’s unhinged rapist-in-waiting, Quentin, a victim? Is Scrutzler, who appears after Quentin dies, a reincarnation of Quentin? The complexity and obliqueness of Téchiné’s and Assayas’s script for Rendez-vous provides a fertile environment for Binoche’s unpredictable, in-the-moment acting. While the scenario itself is straightforward, from one moment to the next, nothing emotional is entirely clear or resolved: we do not know which of the men, if any, she has chosen or how she really feels about them, and neither does she, until it’s too late. While the force of Binoche’s personality commands the frame, this doesn’t translate into Nina being certain of herself: she is as lost as the others but remains the only character in Rendez-vous with a definable goal and the strength to attain it. As an exercise in audience captivation, it is resonant of Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina or Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. As an announcement of a blazing new talent, it prefaces Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. Disavowing her fledgling status, Binoche grabs the camera by the throat, fixes its gaze upon her boyish, alabaster face, and refuses to relinquish her grasp.