DOUBLE Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche on her love of tragedies, turning down Spielberg (three times) and why her star turn in Antigone in Edinburgh this summer means so much to her
Someone we love dies. Then however big or small, public or private, we have a ritual where we bury or cremate them. We express how we felt about them, mark their place in the world and the ripples their existence sent out into it, and we mourn their passing. It’s a basic instinct that goes back how long? The 45,000 year-old skull of the Neanderthal child found in France at the start of the last century was unearthed from a grave. Neanderthals buried their dead, too. Racing from Neanderthal times right up to, oh, 441BC, we come to Sophocles, writing a play about a woman hell-bent on burying her dead brother, against the orders of the king. His remains lie outside the city walls festering in the sun, but the sister, Antigone, risks everything to honour him, to follow the ritual lest his soul be left to wander for eternity – and seals her tragic fate.
Juliette Binoche plays Antigone in renowned Belgian theatre director Ivo Van Hove’s production of the Greek tragedy, expected to be one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. From the Barbican in London, the new English language translation by Anne Carson is now on tour to Antwerp and Amsterdam, arriving in Edinburgh in August, then it’s Paris, Recklinghausen and New York.
“Antigone is a character who wants to bury her brother and the consequences of it are tragic, but she doesn’t want to die,” says Binoche. “She wants to live. Sophocles wrote that if bodies are not buried properly the soul wanders round in eternity. It needs the ritual. Antigone is really in tune with the principles of life, with the ontology of it.”
It’s the morning after I’ve watched her and the rest of the cast in the play at the Barbican, where on a stage devoid of scenery and clutter, the slight Binoche manages to fill the space with her presence. The next day, in a French cafe crouching beneath the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, it’s a different story. Binoche goes unrecognised.
A small, slim woman in a big coat she slips in unremarked, sliding between tables and into the seat opposite me at a window table. Her presence attracts not a flicker from the French staff, despite her being one of their country’s best-known actresses. She orders water, no ice. Make-up free, her hair finger combed, she stows coat, scarf and bag then looks up and smiles. There it is, the symmetrical beauty of Binoche, the classic bone structure, melting brown eyes, the morning sun through the window catching character lines that only add to her complexity.
Born in Paris in 1964, Binoche’s breakthrough film was Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary in 1985. Three years later The Unbearable Lightness of Being propelled her onto the international stage, and almost 30 years on her career has spanned Three Colours: Blue in the early 1990s to work with left-field directors such as Haneke, Cronenberg and Kiarostami. The toast of Cannes with this month’s release, The Clouds of Sils Maria, an Oscar winner for The English Patient and Chocolat, she’s the only actress to hold the European best actress triple crown for Three Colours: Blue at Venice, The English Patient at Berlin and Certified Copy at Cannes. She laughs a lot, despite headlining in a tragedy.
“I love tragedies,” she says. “It doesn’t make me sad, not at all. It makes me think and feel and I learn something from it and when I can learn something it makes me joyful, actually. So I don’t take it personally. I go through it and if I’m touched I enjoy it because it reveals some truth. And I need truth through an artform, otherwise for me it’s not worth it. When you give, you receive at the same time, so something comes back immediately. Although twice a day can be a little much to keep up when it’s not your native language. To watch a film or play just to see something fake, it depresses me, it makes me sad. If you put your time money and spirit into that, it stays in you.”
Antigone is determined to bury the body of her brother Polynices, against the edict of her uncle Creon, the new king of Thebes, who threatens to execute anyone who touches it. The spare modern office setting and contemporary clothing bring the timeless brutality up to date with a world where 298 bodies from a Malaysian Airlines plane shot out of the sky over the Ukraine also lay mouldering in the sun for a week, before being recovered and buried.
“I wanted to do the play because I think there’s an intelligence in it that is still alive and vivid and contemporary. I felt it was a necessary play somehow, and inside the story there is hidden something about the human being. When I met Ivo it came to me very clearly that to do a great tragedy was going to bring some essence of big questions.”
She adds: “It’s the simplicity of the play, the space. We have treasures from the past and the writing makes this one of those. There are people who are in tune with intelligence and knowledge, like Sophocles, and they are very precious. He wrote about 120 plays and we only have six of them.”
Is she drawn to roles that deal with the big issues? Aside from Antigone, this year’s film releases include The Clouds of Sils Maria which explores ageing and The 33, about the real-life rescue of the Chilean miners. Then there’s the Sicilian-set The Wait. “You have people in life taking risks because there is something that they cannot get over,” she says. “I have been asked, what do you feel about Antigone being a feminist. I don’t think she is a feminist. I think [Creon] is misogynist because at the time, there are few women in power and he is repeating over and over how he won’t be bested by a woman. He says she is just a woman. I think Sophocles was intelligent enough to know very well that men and women need each other. That the two poles are complementary. They are different, but they are complementary and so I think this play needs to be said and done nowadays.”
Has Binoche ever held out in the same way as Antigone against the law or rules of society? “There are many different kinds of laws, but conflict, not agreeing with someone or something, sure, of course. I mean, who doesn’t? There was one film I was making with the director Claude Berri, called Lucie Aubrac, about the Resistance during the Second World War. Claude is dead now, so I haven’t spoken to him about it, but for him I went too far. I had done a lot of preparation for the film and there was something in the script that was not right and Lucie Aubrac herself agreed with me, so I tried to put it back to the correct way. I think I knew so much he couldn’t stand it, so he fired me. He fired 20 people during the shooting so I wasn’t the only one, but still…Three months after I had the Oscar, so that was like a symbol, that was the best medicine, ha, ha, ha.”
Binoche doesn’t seem to ever stop working. In the middle of the ten-month Antigone tour, when there’s a break of a couple of months, is she going to have a holiday?
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” she laughs, like an overstacked dishwasher. As if. “No, I’m going to do two films,” she says. The first is called Slack Bay (Ma Loute). It’s a quirky, dark crime comedy set in Northern France and in the second she plays a choreographer.
“It’s because I love it but also because I decided to work with Bruno Dumont, who I worked with already on Camille Claudel. He wrote a really nice comedy. It’s only two-and-a-half week’s shooting, and it’s fun to do. And the other film is an adventure, where I play a choreographer and have to dance a little, so I’m working a little bit on that every day.”
She pauses to take a handful of tiny homeopathic marbles, washed down with ice-free water. “I don’t even know what they are,” she says. “I trust my homeopath so much, but they’re for general health.”
But she’s healthy anyway, isn’t she? She looked pretty fit on the huge Barbican stage last night, and doing that every night, some days twice, is no mean feat.
“Yes, it’s physical. Emotion brings physicality too, so the body has to be ready and fit for it.” But wouldn’t her kids rather she took some time off in the summer to have a holiday with them? Binoche has two children, a 21-year-old son Raphael, whose father is scuba diver Andre Halle, and a 15-year-old daughter Hana with actor Benoit Magimel, who was in the 1999 film Children of the Century with her.
“My daughter is going to go to university in the US to work on her English and my son has to work. He’s in school but he has to do some summer work to earn some money,” she says. Really? She’s said to be one of France’s highest-paid actresses, isn’t it tempting just to give your kids some money?
“No! No! Ha, ha, he’s 21, hello! They have to learn to work,” says no-nonsense maman Binoche. “And you don’t know my life so you don’t know whether I’m rich or not,” she says, sparring playfully.
“True, but reading in the press…”
“What do they know?” she says.
They say she’s France’s highest-paid actress, I counter.
“They said that 20 years ago,” she laughs again.
Binoche has always favoured a work ethic. She left the prestigious National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts early because she already had a job. She loves to do both film and theatre, and it was theatre that attracted her to acting first, when she directed and acted in Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King at school.
“I fell in love with theatre when I was a teenager. I thought, this is what I want to do because the joy I receive I want to give. It was about participating and giving back.”
In terms of what kind of films she likes to make, Chocolat, it seems, had her at hello.“I received the script and read it very quickly because of the title, I have to confess,” she says. “I liked the script and watched lots of Lasse Hallstrom’s films and liked them, then Harvey Weinstein said the film was mine. But a week after I saw that they’d given it to Nicole Kidman. I was so disappointed, but at the same time, in this work, you have surprises like this. Then she turned it down and it came back to me. You have to let go and enjoy what comes, because it goes back and forth. It’s a trick that destiny is playing on you.”
With a career that’s never been big on Hollywood blockbusters or Jennifer Aniston-type romcoms, is it true she turned down Spielberg three times? “Yes, because once I was doing The Lovers on the Bridge, and he proposed me Indiana Jones 3, I think it was, and another time I had Blue. I was very keen on doing that because it was a dedication to a very close friend of mine who happened to lose her husband and child.
“And then for Schindler’s List, I was pregnant and the role was very violent. But I would love to work with him and it touches me that he keeps coming back. But I’ve said this so many time he must be fed up hearing about me turning down his films!” She laughs like someone who’s not losing any sleep over a lack of roles or opportunity.
Binoche has never married, despite being proposed to more than once. “I almost did, several times, but it never really happened,” she says. “I’m very romantic, and probably because I’m too romantic, but also at the same time I think I overcame the need, because you’re attached to an idea and a feeling as well. I tend to think that the real wedding you have to do within yourself, between the masculine and the feminine inside yourself.”
Binoche, 51, might not read any of the press about her looks –“I ignore it” – and has famously refused to have any work done on her face or body, preferring to follow the Dame Judi Dench method of acting her age. Back in 2007 she posed naked for Playboy. Why did she do that?
“I don’t know. I… they put me in front of a challenge. I did the interview first and liked it, then they said if you’re not doing the nude pictures we are not going to publish the interview. So I was put in a sort of blackmail, so I asked a photographer friend to take the pictures. I was doing a dancing show at the time, so we took pictures of me dancing nude. We enjoyed it and had a good time, and I liked the pictures. We are born naked… ha, ha, ha.” She shrugs.
Off-screen Binoche is very private, but does she have a partner now?
“I do,” she says and her Mona Lisa smile fills the ensuing silence.
Ok, is it a man or a woman?
The smile erupts into a guffaw.
“It’s a man,” she confirms.
Is he a director?
“I’m not going to say. It’s totally private. It has a name and it’s called privacy. Because you can see in films and plays we reveal so much of our intimacy as actors and we have to have a space where nobody is trying to open the door and see.”
Binoche doesn’t bemoan the dearth of roles for women in their fifties or rush to accuse the film world of sexism. “No, I don’t feel that. I work a lot, I don’t keep myself passive. I always initiate things because it’s my nature as well, because I think that I need to create and be in a film or a play where I can participate and be active. I don’t like passivity that actors can put themselves in.
“That’s not what I’ve been dreaming of. My need of theatre was my need of being in a troupe and having one big vision and goal together. The film business can be very individualist but there’s a way when you’re meeting with one person, two people, you have to create your own world, don’t be passive and wait for calls.”
And not one to wait around, she slips on her coat, weaves amongst the cafe tables once more unnoticed, and straight into a waiting cab.
• Antigone starring Juliette Binoche is screened on BBC4 tomorrow at 8pm as part of the The Age Of Heroes: Ancient Greece Uncovered season. Antigone is at the King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Edinburgh, from 8-22 August, tickets £17-£48, www.eif.co.uk; The Clouds of Sils Maria (15) is on general release now