Into the Great Wide Open
Simran Hans on Juliette Binoche in Dan in Real Life

Like several of its genre contemporaries, Peter Hedges’s 2007 indie romantic comedy Dan in Real Life has the misfortune of sounding like it was selected by a Sundance title generator (see also: Lars and the Real Girl, Margot at the Wedding, Rachel Getting Married). Perhaps best known (and better forgotten) for its saccharine poster, in which Steve Carell’s “Dan” inexplicably rests his head against a syrup-soaked stack of pancakes, it also—also inexplicably—stars Juliette Binoche. The French actress has worked with such art-house titans as Olivier Assayas, Leos Carax, David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, Abel Ferrara, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kiéslowski, and Anthony Minghella among others, and, in comparison, Hedges’s is a small film; fuzz-coated if not strictly “fluffy,” low stakes, sweetly (mostly) realistic in its depiction of later-life love. In it, forty-something advice columnist, widower, and devoted father-of-three Dan (Carell) is charmed by a woman, Marie (Binoche), he meets in a bookshop during a family vacation to Rhode Island. He returns home, newly smitten, only to discover she is the new girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook); a weekend of tortured flirting ensues amidst forced fun and impromptu sing-alongs.

It must be said that the role of Marie does not strike as canonical Binoche. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw argued in his review of the film, “Juliette Binoche always looks uncomfortable in this shallow-end material.” Yet, the opposite is true; Binoche looks radiant, relaxed and in control, gracefully rising above the increasingly humiliating situations Hedges puts her in. Forced to join in the family bonding by way of infantile group activities, Marie plays hide and seek, a boys vs. girls crossword, tag football. But Binoche remains remarkably good-humored when Carell rugby-tackles her to the ground, merely bemused when he invades her privacy by barging into the bathroom while her character is washing her face. Most disturbing of all is a scene that sees Binoche wearing a black jogging suit and taking part in an aerobics-style dance routine set to a tinny remix of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” She sashays to the front of the group and rolls her hips, embracing the scenario, expression serene and sunny as she salsa steps. Later, at a sports bar, spurred on by a younger romantic rival played by Emily Blunt, Marie will dance again (this time to Inya Day’s cover of the Vanity 6’s 1982 track “Nasty Girl”). In an interview with The Criterion Collection about Claire Denis’s 2017 film Let the Sunshine In, Binoche purports to have had “no dance training as a little girl” although she does refer herself as “a mover” of sorts. But Binoche is a good dancer, liquid-limbed and sensual, shimmying her shoulders to the beat and letting out the occasional involuntary “whoop!” Although she’s with a partner, it’s as though she’s dancing for herself (in Let the Sunshine In, the reverse is true).

During an conversation at the British Film Institute in 2008, Binoche told the audience that her nature was “pretty happy” but “tragic too.” “I don’t hide it,” she said, referencing the way her emotions seem to sit just beneath her skin. She was talking about the legibility of her temperament as a person, but this is part of Binoche’s appeal as an actress, too. Not only can she comfortably access both joy and pain: she can switch between the two. “I love laughing, but I can cry in a second,” she continued. In the New Yorker’s review of 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Anthony Lane wrote of Binoche’s “dirty, rich, and Rabelaisian” laugh as “a crucial corrective to the rarefied dolor for which directors prize her.” In Dan in Real Life, Binoche’s laugh is so unguarded, her joy so palpable, that she makes a disposable Disney production feel profound.

The warm, embodied, happy-sad quality of Binoche’s sensuality also emerges in other moments. In their meet-cute at a bookstore, Marie approaches Dan, asking if he’ll help her choose a book that will assist her in remedying “an awkward situation”. She prowls the store, quixotic and wide-eyed, curious, cat-like, circling Dan. She’s after something funny. “But not necessarily hahaha, laugh-out-loud funny. And certainly not make-fun-of-other people-funny. Human funny,” she insists. “I’m looking to be swept up, and the same time, not. I want to feel a deep connection to something, or maybe I don’t know what I’m looking for.” The sweet spot that exists between emotional transparency and being enigmatic is quintessentially Binochean. Binoche makes sure Marie is not an archetypal quirky, chatty French woman (but imagine for a moment, the altogether spikier Julie Delpy in the role). Yet more than a decade since its original release, my rewatch confirms that on paper Marie is designed to illustrate Dan’s capacity for love but is underwritten herself; like a walking, talking dating profile, she’s the sum of her cutest qualities. As Dan’s mother (Dianne West) says, “She’s bright, lovely, adorable.” She is “well-traveled,” “a Scorpio (with a Libra rising),” “an accomplished maker of pancakes” (at least accounting for the poster). She has an excellent vocabulary, coming up with words like “ozone,” “sautée,” and “zeitgeist” during the family’s competitive crossword. When Dan presents her with a children’s picture book titled Everybody Poops, she declares it “very funny, and true,” eyes crinkling at his dad jokes.

If Marie is a sort of manic pixie dream girl, the term epitomized by Natalie Portman in Zach Braff’s Garden State, Carell’s Dan is an equally annoying archetype: a true Andrew Largeman. As also demonstrated in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love and even 2018’s Welcome to Marwen, Carell has honed the sad single guy, vulnerable in an appealing way but upon closer inspection, selfish. In Dan in Real Life, we watch Dan and Marie through a windowpane as they drink coffee, overlooking the harbor. Montage suggests duration; in the same way that Binoche is trapped within this film, the material inferior to her capabilities, we can only assume Marie has been trapped in that cafe for hours. Binoche generously feigns interest, nodding benevolently as Carell’s Dan monologues, never once asking her a question. Indeed, when the two part ways, he turns to her, an edge of surprise in his voice, and says: “You know all about me, but I know nothing about you.” A familiar first-date feeling. In the film’s end credits, the pair is married. For Marie, there is no escape.

Binoche performs this willful entrapment by playing Marie with a studied self-consciousness. The character is neither dense nor desperate, but she’s eager to please, alert to the things that Dan might find charming. The actor’s natural expressiveness means we’re endeared to her, regardless. She oscillates between two smiles; close-lipped and not entirely comfortable, and wide-mouthed, teeth gleaming as she tips her head back and laughs, loudly. When she and Dan sneak off to go bowling, she pouts good-naturedly at her gutterball, then throws him a hearty, double high-five after landing a strike. In a later scene, a flicker of insecurity crosses her face as she watches Dan dance with twenty-something Ruthie (Emily Blunt), but mostly her expression is one of skepticism. Her jaw hardens and sets as her eyes fix on Ruthie’s vibrating ass; her eyes narrow as she tells the possessive Mitch she’s “cool”. The film’s emotional climax takes place as Mitch and Dan serenade her with a duet of Pete Townshend’s ‘Let My Love Open the Door’. Dan plays the guitar and sings back up while his brother takes the lead; both look, lovingly, at Marie. Dan insists on the last word, singing the song’s coda alone. “It’s unbearable,” she says tenderly, and it is. Marie is the object of affection, but Binoche ensures she isn’t simply a sponge for the brothers’ syrupy love.

Binoche’s face telegraphs tenderness as Dan chucks his nephews in the air, unmitigated delight in her cackle when Dan resolves to make himself “less attractive” as a preventative measure. In one set piece, Dan’s daughter walks in on them in the bathroom. He hides in the shower; she’s forced to get in it, nude, so as to not blow their cover. Dan politely places a flannel over his eyes, but Binoche’s willingness to expose herself means it’s a strangely erotic scene.

The choice to lay herself bare is consistent throughout Binoche’s filmography. In the decade since Dan in Real Life, she’s picked less flattering roles. In Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles, it’s uncomfortable when her magazine journalist discards her better instincts and gets sloppy-drunk with one of the sex workers she’s writing about. In Clouds of Sils Maria, the actress must perform a personal reckoning as a movie star forced to inhabit an on-stage role written for an older woman, the calcified foil to the part that made her famous in her youth. Though Claire Denis’s gaze is warm, in Let the Sunshine In Binoche’s unlucky-in-love painter and her relationships are subject to scrutiny. The stakes of each film are different, but in all of them, Binoche puts little distance between herself and her role.

Despite the throwaway nature of Dan in Real Life, her performance remains tender and exposed. Once again the elasticity of Binoche’s emotional generosity makes itself known. She is prepared to open herself up, sometimes at great cost. Yet her lack of inhibition inoculates her from on-screen degradation. Her emotional generosity is a shield.