Wifely Duties
Matthew Eng on Juliette Binoche in Caché

Michael Haneke might never have made it to France were it not for Juliette Binoche. The late nineties proved pivotal for both artists: Funny Games, the succès de scandale that put Haneke on the art-house map, debuted at Cannes in 1997, the same year that Binoche’s crossover success was solidified with a surprise Academy Award win for The English Patient, an honor bestowed upon her at the expense of Oscarless Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall, no less. Not long after, Haneke received a fortuitous phone call from Binoche, who had watched Haneke’s four Austrian features and was eager to work with the writer-director, asking him to keep her in mind for any future projects. The result was Haneke’s first French-language production, the multinational narrative jigsaw Code Unknown (2000), in which Binoche originated the first of Haneke’s French characters named “Anne,” this one an insulated Parisian actress who, in one of the film’s many damning indictments, opts for the comforts of her red wine and ironing board rather than attend to the screams of a neighboring child who may or may not be the victim of domestic abuse.

Many an able actor has faltered under the direction of a filmmaker who possesses little respect for his well-off characters; look no further than the haphazard ensemble of Haneke’s most recent provocation, Happy End, for proof of this pitfall. But Binoche memorably counterbalanced the cool and critical obliqueness of Haneke’s storytelling techniques in Code Unknown, bridging the director’s distance from the viewer with the warmth of her own empathy for the character, never more so than in a prolonged scene, captured in a single stationary take, that makes Binoche’s Anne the victim of two teenagers’ cruel harassment on a Metro car.

When Haneke offered Binoche the role of another Gallic, bourgeois Anne in 2005’s Caché, the actress accepted without so much as glancing at the script, a testament to Haneke’s position in the auteurist firmament at the time but also to Binoche’s game inclination to attempt seemingly any acting challenge thrown her way by world-class masters and low-key populists alike, many of whom come to her. “Juliette Binoche, the female lead, is both a great actress and a star,” Haneke told the Austrian Film Commission in an interview about Code Unknown. These terms are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but the distinction matters when it comes to Binoche, whose IMDb filmography continues to look like a deliberate balancing act of the highbrow and the mainstream. (Note that Code Unknown arrived in theaters the same year as one of Binoche’s more dubious credits, Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat, notoriously browbeaten into AMPAS members’ hearts by the Weinsteins.) Binoche’s ability to turn undeniable talent into the very crux of her star persona and her increasingly vigorous, more-is-more performance style make it incredibly tempting to label her Europe’s answer to Meryl Streep—a fellow stage-trained thespian-turned-world-renowned movie star—were it not for the fact that Binoche has always taken far greater risks in her choice of characters and collaborators than the increasingly risk-averse Streep.

Post-Blue, the simple fact of Binoche—her very identifiability—remains inescapable in the same way that Streep’s persona was post-Kramer vs. Kramer, and will always be. Like all major stars, it is impossible to forget we are watching Juliette Binoche on-screen, an inevitability that hasn’t deterred the actress from credibly playing everyday people and occasionally acts as a boon to the more trivial roles that seem to befit a legend like Binoche least. If Code Unknown’s Anne was an object of fascinated scrutiny then her counterpart in Caché operates as something far more straightforward: a helpless and disenchanted witness to the evasive culpability of her husband, Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the respected host of a TV literary program who becomes the target of persistent psychological terrorism (in the form of cryptic videotapes and ominous drawings) as payback for a callous wrong committed in his youth.

On the surface, Caché’s Anne is unequivocally an archetype, not too far from the worried wives with perpetually folded arms that actresses as disparate as Laura Linney, Sienna Miller, and Dianne Wiest have played for Clint Eastwood in recent years. (A long-gestating, ill-advised American remake of Haneke’s censorious surveillance thriller would surely relegate this character even further on the margins.) Haneke makes it all too easy for us to applaud Binoche for never losing her ability to play ordinary women, filming her joylessly traipsing around the family home in drab, shapeless dresses, bringing dinner to the table, and henpecking her husband for lingering over the first video that arrived at their door that day and letting their meal grow cold in the process. Binoche moves and speaks with a detectable chip on her shoulder (“I’m not a complete idiot, you know?” she bristles at one point), all while blending into the book-lined walls and pale surfaces of Georges and Anne’s townhouse with the ease of someone truly at home. Later, Anne will reflexively play peacemaker in an altercation on the street outside of a police precinct, breaking up a shouting match between Georges and a black bicyclist who has cut the couple off.

The intensity of Binoche’s presence never makes her look circumscribed by the limitations of the role, but the script, in Anne’s earliest scenes especially, gives us ample reason to wonder just what Binoche ever saw in this particular assignment once she finally got around to reading the screenplay. Even Haneke’s direction refuses to privilege the most famous player in his ensemble: he sometimes makes Binoche into little more than an aural presence channeling wifely frustration across certain scenes or requires her to play several extended shots with her back to the camera.

Yet Binoche and Haneke have greater, sneakier plans for Anne than our initial impressions suggest. The character is indeed largely reactive but not purely so, and Binoche takes a series of temperamentally similar scenes and reactions—namely, pique and befuddlement at being continually left out and lied to by Georges about his hidden past and ongoing investigation—and modulates them with purposeful instances of intensification and retrenchment that reward observant viewership. She distinguishes the character beyond her stock origins with the implication of a far fuller life than exists on the page. In fact, by starting out so pinched and prickly, Binoche plays against the expectations of a generic character arc; there’s no slide from blissfully ignorant domestic contentment to wretched awareness. From our very first glimpse of her, Anne appears to be an unhappy being, a decision in Binoche’s performance that more effectively clues us in to the state of Georges and Anne’s long-term union than a more content facade would have.

Binoche hones the character’s replies and behavior for implicit motivation. Though she longs for her husband’s attention, Anne is decidedly not a support system to Georges; she spends far more time calling his bluff and chipping away at his foolish bravado than she does consoling or defending him. In a key scene, set during a late-night dinner with the couple’s bobo friends, Anne surprises her husband by telling their guests about their stalker and his barrage of cryptic parcels, all while casually serving them dessert. Binoche’s delivery drips with passive-aggression, clarifying this confession as a form of retaliation against Georges’s continued secrecy.

We learn a half-hour into the movie that Anne works for a publisher during a catch-up conversation between Georges and his ailing mother (Annie Girardot), from whom the couple is somewhat estranged. When soon after Georges speaks to Anne on the phone during one of her company’s book parties, Binoche seizes this rare on-screen moment of husband-and-wife separation to show us a side of Anne we have yet to see: the glamorous and insouciant career woman. “I like not having him around some days,” Anne says to Georges about the couple’s sulky, 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), who seems to never be home. “He can be a little macho prick,” she cracks. Clad in a white pantsuit and caught making briefly flirtatious eyes at her older boss Pierre (Daniel Duval), Binoche emits the shimmering, unruffled self-possession of the star we know her to be.

This moment begs the question: would our attention even be drawn, much less held, by Anne were an actor of Binoche’s stature not inhabiting her? Of course not, and Binoche appears to know that. Perhaps this is why, as the film progresses, Binoche seems to actually be leveraging the magnetism of her celebrity to vouch for the character. She rewards the eye of the camera, when it settles on her, and that of the viewer, which cannot help but seek her out, with more unbridled feeling than is usually permitted in Haneke’s films, in which human emotion is so often an impediment. When the true nature of Georges’s deceit comes to light via a surprise videotape, Binoche at first listens to his explanation with her strong, skeptical brows raised. When he finishes, she doesn’t simply argue but explodes in a torrent of bitterness. Her eyes welling with tears and voice rising in volume and disdain, Binoche is incandescent with irritation. She vacillates unpredictably between chastisement and caustic self-mockery, snapping “Would you like your dinner? Can I get you a drink?” as Georges weakly defends his decision to keep her in the dark about Majid (Maurice Bénichou), the sorrowful, middle-aged Algerian man who may or may not be the source of their misery.

Binoche’s boldness provides Anne with a level of importance and insight that is not present in Haneke’s words and scenario, existing only on the screen in Binoche’s incarnation. In Caché, Haneke deploys Binoche as a maker of meaning: Anne’s passionate demands to be trusted in the aforementioned scene double as a refusal to have her responses dictated by a solitary man who refuses to include her or acknowledge her hurt. But Haneke also propels Binoche into a capacity that she has filled in numerous parts since Caché, that of an advocate for her characters, one intent on fighting for their right to be heard and recognized for their nuance and complexity. What Binoche may lack in the restrained, fine-grained technical mastery of an Isabelle Huppert, Haneke’s primary French muse, she more than makes up for with her liberality of feeling and her willingness to inform her characters with ideas and emotions that may run counter to a director’s vision.“ I do need to have this outside point of view [from the director], because it helps for me to let go and abandon myself and be inside of my perception and sensation,” Binoche said in an interview with the Criterion Collection last year. When considered in this light, Haneke’s decision to cast Binoche in this particular role makes complete sense, for only an actress of Binoche’s stature and self-assertion could have made this character matter.

Binoche’s transparency helps tells the added story that runs alongside Caché’s predominant narrative of colonial treachery and its guilty remnants. The palpable anger of her playing gives credence to the distress of a continually underestimated and undervalued wife who is finally opening her eyes to the reality that her marriage cannot sustain the pressure of the truth. “[Caché] wasn’t comfortable for me to watch,” Binoche told the New York Times in a 2005 profile of Haneke. “Me as an actress watching myself go through horrible feelings… I missed showing compassion. The role is not very glamorous, but it is honest. The film may be pessimistic, but it is looking for truth. It’s a kind of self-portrait.” Binoche herself embraces the messy and uncomfortable truths of a marriage on the rocks, never more so than when Anne lays her anguish bare during a meeting in a café with her boss Pierre, whose welcomed nuzzling and hand-holding betray an inordinate closeness that may—or may not—have crossed over into extramarital involvement.

This scene, with its cascade of snot and tears, could probably be held up as a case study for those who consider Binoche’s screen work this century to be overwrought. Terms like “maximalist” and “asphyxiating” get thrown around aplenty in descriptions of Binoche’s acting, even when it’s in the service of characters who are themselves tempestuous, keyed-up neurotics. In her review of Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915, Melissa Anderson, a self-confessed Binoche agnostic, writes that the star “cannot resist emoting ‘big’—whether in a gesture as seemingly small as a nostril flair or a too-long glower… [She] seems to be operating on the fear that she will be upstaged by her novice costars.” Caché certainly has no shortage of Binoche’s extremity, which rears its head most in the marital spats that find Anne prodding and persisting with abandon as Georges merely retreats.

Binoche’s critics tend to put too much stock in her admitted over-emotiveness at the expense of even acknowledging the naturalistic, character-revealing subtlety at which she frequently excels and which is showcased sparsely but memorably in Caché. When the unexpected buzz of a doorbell nearly paralyzes Anne during the couple’s dinner with friends, Haneke keeps Binoche in close-up as her pupils narrow and dampen into two dark pools of panic, an image that remains one of the purest distillations of barely contained terror I’ve ever seen on screen. Binoche also underplays beautifully in a push-pull conversation with her son, who catches mom off-guard by ambiguously mentioning Pierre and his recurring presence in their home. Here Binoche uses a series of organically rattled reactions—a dry swallow, a bit of flustered stammering—to evoke the unease of a parent who can see her fallibility being exposed to her child.

Best of all is Binoche’s final appearance in the film, which is during a scene set in Georges and Anne’s darkened bedroom as Georges comes clean about the hand he had in determining Majid’s sad and now irreparable fate. As Georges crumples before her, Anne rises from the bed with a passivity verging on the mechanical and places a limp hand on his shoulder. In most other films, the gesture would unmistakably tell us that Anne has resigned herself to staying despite the accrual of neglect and disappointment. But Binoche’s lack of emotion in this scene, coupled with the ungovernable frustration that courses throughout Caché, persuades us to imagine another possible future for these characters, one in which there is no hand waiting to console Georges, no wife left for him to leave out in the cold.