by Will McKenzie
Will McKenzie writes for the Independent site 6degrees and wrote a thesis on "Femininity in French Cinema"
In her recent article 'Juliette Binoche: The Erotic Face', Ginette Vincendeau suggests: "Her high cheekbones, translucent complexion and full pink lips are the essence of loveliness, but her gaze is intensely earnest." Binoche often plays such difficult, wilfully contradictory characters, for watching her act is in itself a powerfully paradoxical experience. Her beauty is intellectual as well as visual, spiritual as well as sensual, angelic even in the dowdiest realism. Even when she played a blind homeless woman, Leos Carax's 'Les Amants de Pont Neuf' painted her as a woman destined to be redeemed.
Juliette Binoche remains a fragile creature, playing artists, writers, musicians, but she is also earthy enough to play destructive sexual muses (see Anna Barton's 'Damage') and to be cast over Gwyneth Paltrow in the forthcoming US film, 'Chocolat'. Her inimitable brand of compelling, thoughtful femininity remains intact in the crossover from French to English-speaking cinema; radically different from the largely interchangeable likes of Angelina Jolie, Denise Richards, Neve Campbell et al. The effect is so potent, the last time she appeared in an English-speaking film (Anthony Minghella's 'The English Patient', 1996), she won an Oscar.
The risk of such a different kind of charisma, however, is typecasting. With those sad, powerful eyes, she seems almost too suitable for the role of tragic historical heroine; her almost other-worldly qualities too suitable for films set in other times. Two of her most recent films, 'Les Enfants du Siècle' and 'La Veuve de St Pierre', fall conveniently into these categories, recalling her starring role in Rappeneau's 'Le Hussard sur le Toit'. She adds to such films, however, because of her uncanny ability to make the timeless emotions of her characters effect the whole film's emotional atmosphere so powerfully. For example, her lonely twilight stand on the cliffs as the wind and waves crash about her in 'Pierre', silent, staring, is a hugely important moment in the film's narrative shape. Her unique trick is to evoke massive changes in mood and atmosphere in minute, if any, facial movements. Her eyes have a unique ability to convey thought, doubt, passion in a simple, unwavering look, where many other actors express merely a benign docility.
This is hugely important in 'Three Colours: Blue', and a major reason why Kieslowski's film is such a masterpiece. The film acutely portrays the processes of grief, which are often those of quiet, semi-contemplative numbness, not dramatic expressions of anguish. Binoche never resorts to hysteria, but simply escapes inward, into her own strange language of rituals and processes, to get over the unexpected loss of her husband and daughter. She is remote without being cold, introspective without being numb. She can communicate energy with stillness.
The way she intimates massive emotional scope so economically gives her and her characters immense mystery and powerful eroticism. As Alice, the struggling violinist in André Téchiné's romance 'Alice et Martin', she updates a Bohemian sense of art-for-art's sake to modern life and blends it with a nascent sexual freedom. She is best friends with a gay man before Martin, a relationship that was never quite defined as sexual or asexual. She drinks heavily. Ravenously hungry, she devours a simple pan of fried eggs, the aggression with which she does so a powerful indication of the erotic love she develops for Martin. She dominates, and is dominated by, him in turn. Binoche, always a sexual being in her films, further complicates and intensifies the "Binoche effect".
At this point, it is helpful to remember that Julie (Binoche's character in 'Three Colours: Blue') makes love to her husband's best friend, a friend who has long admired her, as a way of rediscovering an independence from her loss. It fails. Bluntly, she asks him to leave, reminding him that, at last, 'You see I am a woman. I sweat, I cough." She uses her physicality to puncture the man's romanticised view of her as a woman somehow beyond reality. She is aware of the ways her pale, dark-haired brand of womanhood can deceive male lovers. She has to really fight to be considered a real, corporeal woman instead of an angelic spirit, a fight that resounds heavily through her portrayal of Tereza in Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. The epitome of innocence, Tereza is involved in an erotic trio with the far more predatory and sexually experienced Sabina and Tomas. The story compares the personal story of the invasion of Tereza's innocence with the political invasion of Prague by Russia. The struggle between love and sex in Tereza's eyes and awkward bodily movements are energised politically: her no-woman's land between sexual emancipation and need for reassuring emotional stability likened to Czechoslovakia's struggle with its Soviet masters. Here Binoche becomes a useful conduit for the sexually political motives that propel the film so effectively.
This is the reason why Binoche's films - all of them - are so powerful. She throws seemingly remote and distant themes into emotional relief. Her sheer charisma makes politics, economics and psychology raw, human and emotional. She gives a strange, beguiling sense of empathy to her characters. Somewhere between haunting cipher and passionate emotional being, she is one of France's finest actresses.