Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Short Post About Juliette Binoche

The blank female face, staring from the screen just above or below or to one side of us, has come to be the defining motif of European art cinema.
And nobody stares as meaningfully as Binoche. Foremost among contemporary French actresses, Binoche is equally at home in France, Britain or America, in art films or commercial prestige pictures, in roles that call for stark minimalism, naturalism or old-fashioned star quality.

Remember her enigmatically gazing out from the posters for Kieslowski’s Bleu: the abstract ideals of the Jacobin death-cry may have been the unifying concept behind the Trois Couleurs, but what united the films aesthetically was their reverent but uncomprehending genuflection before the female face.
Binoche's, like Delpy's in Blanc and Jacob's in Rouge says nothing and everything; its strength is in its obliquity as much as, perhaps more than, its beauty. Emotions are to be hinted at and meanings fragmented; these days we lack Bergman’s faith in narrative as journey and we are wary of catharsis.
(Do look out for those blankly staring faces, by the way: they have been the instant markers of a movie that wants to be taken seriously since the late sixties. When American cinema has lofty ambitions, from The Graduate to Lost in Translation, characters stare meaningfully to the accompaniment of pensive pop music, in European art cinema they just stare meaningfully.)

Her performance as the young widow in Kieslowski’s Bleu, first and finest third of his basically sound (if over-rated to Hades and back at the time, and now, tellingly, more or less forgotten) trilogy, is one of the great, defining performances of arthouse cinema. And it is one of the great modern screen performances, with reams of psychological and emotional information conveyed in the tiniest gestures and nuances of speech. Even doing nothing at all, as Kieslowski’s camera simply stares at her face, she rivets attention, and all without a trace of mannerism or forced feeling. It will last as long as anything by Masima, or Karina, or Vitti.
Nowadays, she seems content to settle into elder stateswoman roles, leaving the lighter stuff to Tautou, her cinematic lovechild.

She was first noticed in Rendez-vous (1985) in a sexually provocative performance that now seems untypically self-effacing. Mauvais Sang (1986) remade her as the muse of director Leos Carax, and English-language success in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) proved her bankable internationally. Emerging personally unscathed from Carax’s hugely expensive white elephant Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) she was a surprise Cathy in Wuthering Heights and an enigmatic femme fatale in Louis Malle’s Damage (both 1992).
"She was no different from anybody else", reflects Jeremy Irons at the end of the latter film, catching sight of her again at an airport, after her desirability has destroyed his marriage and career, and inadvertently brought about the death of his son. To somehow play the vamp straight and get away with it, and yet still retain enough normality to make that final observation play too is more than most actresses of the day could have taken on. The result was true international popularity of a kind enjoyed only occasionally by European stars, and more box-office success in The English Patient (1996) and Chocolat (2002).
The trouble with her English language films is that there simply are no anglophone male actors capable of keeping up with her, or not seeming grotesque in her company, so the viewer has a stark choice: miss a Binoche performance, or sit through two hours of Johnny Depp or Daniel Day Lewis.
Fascinatingly, for this most meaningful of faces, when she consented to pose nude for Playboy magazine, her face was covered in every shot.

(Written for the book 501 Movie Stars)