I first saw Juliette Binoche in Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), surely one of the most erotic mainstream films ever made. She seemed like a furtive-eyed little animal, bold but somehow hidden, even rigid, fiercely holding down Daniel Day-Lewis’ amusing womanizer Tomas until they achieve a brief moment of domestic contentment. Her Tereza is the film’s stabilizing force, whereas Lena Olin’s Sabina is an icon of bowler-hatted libertinage; in one epochal scene, Tereza gets Sabina to pose for some nude photographs, and something subterranean stirs between these two very different women. Finally, Sabina grabs the camera from Tereza and says, “Now it’s my turn.” As tension continually mounts, Tereza takes her top off but then gets school-girlishly embarrassed, rushing over to a couch and burying her face in it. Sabina goes to her, slowly pulls down her panties, then holds one of Tereza’s arms behind her back. Cut to a close-up of Binoche, excited, scared, bewildered. Then they go further…
Binoche had made her first impact in another extremely sexual film, André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985), where she was excitingly mercurial, moving with quicksilver rapidity from emotion to emotion so that they never had time to really settle on her dark, exquisite face. She collaborated with Leos Carax on the completely unhinged, nearly Frank Borzage-ish folly Lovers on the Bridge (1991), where she has several moments of unconstrained wildness, especially when she and Denis Lavant get drunk on a bridge as firecrackers explode and rap music on the soundtrack gives way to a Viennese waltz; her grave playfulness is best evidenced by the way she tells a semi-dirty story at the end, punctuated by a raucous laugh. These three films promised a career along the lines of a Jeanne Moreau or a Catherine Deneuve; Binoche seemed faster, greedier and hotter under the collar than just about any other screen actress of the past or present.
Then, something strange began to happen to her. It started with Louis Malle’s Damage (1992), which also placed a large emphasis on sex, but this time a kind of impersonal fornication that cut her off from all the complex emotion of Kundera’s Tereza. In Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue (1993), Binoche did a haunting but rather passive study in grief, sitting alone in cafes, her face inscrutable, mysterious; she caught a kind of melancholy stasis, in some scenes, but it was as if a light-switch had been turned off in her. Thereafter, her career has been wayward; she won an inexplicable Miramax Oscar for The English Patient (1996), but I have no recollection of her in that film. In her second Miramax venture, Chocolat (2000), she came alive again, as if little woodland creatures were animating the muscles of her moody face, but the saccharine movie offered her no worthy context.
In all honesty, I have no idea what to make of Binoche at this point. Years have gone by; she appears in French costume films and the occasional American movie. Then, in 2007, out of nowhere, she came up with a spectacular, improvised performance in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, playing a blond, messy, self-centered puppeteer. As she travels on a train, with sunlight shining on her face, Binoche’s character remembers being an au pair in London and going to the British Museum every day; she smiles as this reminiscence starts to unearth all kinds of unexpected emotions, and Binoche keeps her face still so that these emotions can fully have their way with her. In this scene, she gave us a lovely mixture of light and dark, a kind of happy-sadness, and she’s capable of catching moods in such a pure way that it’s a wonder she hasn’t quite made her major film yet, her Jules and Jim (1962), her Belle de Jour (1967), her The Story of Adele H. (1975), her The Piano Teacher (2001).
Binoche has descended on Brooklyn’s Academy of Music with a full-blown, Renaissance woman vengeance; she’s doing a dance piece, signing a book of her paintings, and participating in screenings of some of her films (no Unbearable Lightness of Being, though, alas). Last Friday, I caught her most recent movie Paris, and then stayed for a Q & A with Binoche and the film’s director Cédric Klapisch, mediated by Aaron Hillis of Benten Films. Paris is aimless and, at 130 minutes, endless; badly written, arbitrary, cutesy. In it, Binoche still looks gorgeous, but totally uninterested; when she’s stuck in a dud film like this, she sinks back from us and does nearly nothing. She can get by purely as a beauty; just looking at her elegantly shaped nose and mouth on a big screen is in some way satisfying. But where is the promiscuous hellion of Rendez-vous, the garrulous, flighty puppeteer of Flight of the Red Balloon? Twenty years ago, her Tereza was a classic study of sexual repression slowly melting away. In the deadly Paris, even a late-in-the-film liberating striptease feels unduly inhibited.
The Q & A after Paris, on the other hand, was almost too compelling. It’s usually a shock, of one kind or another, when a constantly looked-at on screen face materializes in the same room with you, even if that room is a large theater; an image becomes a person, and suddenly you don’t feel comfortable staring at their face as you have for decades in the movies. I somehow got the impression that if I looked at Binoche for too long, she might make eye contact with me and then something absolutely awful might happen. Like what? I have no idea, but there was a kind of dangerous turbulence in her face and her manner that I have never seen in any of her films. Binoche eyed all of us with a steadily burning, exhausted sadness that looked a lot like grief, and not the rather air-brushed, art film grief of Kieślowski’s Blue. She snapped out of this at times, even treating us to her exploding laugh, which never sounded more like a cry of anguish. There were moments of imperiousness, of barely concealed anger, of self-deprecating humor. She has all of these qualities available to her on command, no doubt, and she is one of the most beautiful screen actresses, probably very difficult to handle or harness, but that’s why she’s so special. There’s no excuse for more Binoche movies like Paris, and every reason to hope that someday a great director will place her in the proper setting and she’ll finally give us that one defining performance.