The Binoche Effect

A French actress becomes a world cinema auteur.

Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon, Blue, Certified Copy, Caché, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Summer Hours.
Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon, Blue, Certified Copy, Caché, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Summer Hours.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by IFC Films

To understand the one-woman international film industry that is the French actress Juliette Binoche, you need only take a look at her resume from this past May. That month two Binoche films opened in the U.S.: She played a nuclear scientist in the blockbuster Godzilla and appeared in the middlebrow rom-com Words and Pictures.  Meanwhile, at Cannes, she also debuted her fourth collaboration with the director Olivier Assayas, The Clouds of Sils Maria, and with that film’s U.S. release this month, it’s worth looking at Binoche’s body of work—not just the performances, wondrous though they often have been, but her Zelig-like presence on the international film scene. Just when you think you’ve got her pinned down in the art film trenches, she’ll pop up on the other side of the world, bringing glamour and sophistication to the most gilded precincts of commercial cinema. And her collaborations with some of the world’s most ambitious directors mark her true role: the actress as international auteur.

Binoche’s conquest of world cinema began in the 1980s. In a Q-and-A at the Toronto Film Festival last year, she described the decade as a period of artistic turmoil, with long nights spent prostrate on the floor of her apartment, yearning for a breakout role. In 1985, Binoche channeled that creative hunger into a riveting performance in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous. She was playing an aspiring actress, a role that hit close to home, and the film showcased both her nascent sex appeal and her ability to summon painful, even ugly, emotions with the illusion of spontaneity. It was a career-defining performance, winning domestic accolades and international attention. Binoche was soon cast alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in the art-house blockbuster The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and in the decades since, she has moved seamlessly between France and Hollywood, auteur cinema and commercial filmmaking.

She has elevated studio awards–bait like The English Patient and Chocolat. She’s cashed checks from head-scratchers like Bee Season and Dan in Real Life. But she’s also formed fertile partnerships with art cinema masters across the planet. This jet-setting, art house–and-multiplex-straddling career has put her at the center of a vast network of influential film artists. The old parlor game in which Kevin Bacon is placed within six degrees of nearly every American actor takes on new and hilarious dimensions when applied to Binoche’s globe-trotting filmography. Pluck a random performer from a Greek film that played at Cannes or a Japanese actress who washed up in a Tarantino movie and he or she is likely just a few degrees removed from Binoche.

That’s because Binoche has gradually emerged as one of the most influential—and underappreciated—kingmakers within contemporary cinema. She has a knack for working with hugely talented filmmakers at the precise moments when they are poised to enter the cinematic canon, elevating their already impressive work to new levels of impact and influence. When Binoche collaborated with Michael Haneke on 2001’s Code Unknown and 2005’s Caché, she played a pivotal role in his transition from a bad boy of the film-fest circuit to an internationally celebrated art-house icon. Binoche’s gifts ensured that the Austrian auteur’s harrowing vision of human affairs was translated successfully into the new French settings he was exploring and framed in a more commercially viable movie language than his previous films. Following the critical and commercial success of Caché, Haneke has continued to work in this psychologically rigorous yet formally accessible style, eventually winning an Oscar for another French-language film, Amour.

Binoche has had a similar impact on a who’s who of international film icons.  When the late Krzysztof Kieslowski wanted to widen his focus outside the borders of his native Poland in the early ’90s, it was Binoche who helped take him there. In the first of his celebrated trilogy of films based on the colors and themes of the French flag, 1993’s Blue, Binoche delivered a raw, painfully lucid performance as a grieving widow. Kieslowski was now tying his obsession with fate and chance to new questions of pan-European identity. He was also reaching new audiences around the world. Like many North American film lovers, I might never have discovered his remarkable body of work if Blockbuster hadn’t given Blue—and the radiant image of Binoche on its VHS cover—such prime real estate in the foreign film aisle.

Binoche’s partnerships with non-European filmmakers have been equally fruitful. In 2007, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien traveled to Paris to collaborate on Flight of the Red Balloon, a story about a French family seen through the eyes of a Chinese student. This was Hou’s first project outside of Asia, shot in a looser, more lyrical style than his previous films, and the product of exhaustive consultation with Binoche, who was given free rein to invent her character’s lines.  By harnessing Binoche’s commercial appeal, this singular voice in Asian film was able to secure his widest-ever theatrical release; by harnessing Binoche’s creative energy, he achieved unprecedented acclaim in the Western press, winning the award for best film of 2008 in IndieWire’s annual survey of more than 100 film critics.

Around the same time, the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami gave Binoche a brief cameo in his experimental film Shirin. He was so enthralled by her ability to communicate across disparate languages and cultures that he then cast her in the lead role in 2010’s Certified Copy, his first English-language feature. In this cryptic romance, set in the hills of Tuscany, Binoche lent shape and texture to the characters’ discussions about authenticity and imitation in the arts; her award-winning performance served as a living embodiment of Kiarostami’s reflections on the truth and beauty of a great impersonation. Kiarostami has said that each of his films “gives birth to another,” and his partnerships with Binoche seem to have placed his career on an adventurous, distinctively global trajectory. His most recent film, Like Someone in Love, was a sexually frank drama set in Japan.

Even French filmmakers seem to broaden their geographic and aesthetic horizons when they work with Binoche. While working with her on the 2008 film Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas mastered an exciting contemporary film language, using narrative ellipses and fluid camera movement to capture the breakneck pace of life under globalization. This elegant portrait of a family in flux was his commercial and creative breakthrough, setting a stylistic and thematic template for Carlos and Something in the Air, the exhilarating, continent-hopping films he’s made in the last half-decade.

Assayas’ newest Binoche collaboration, The Clouds of Sils Maria, is yet another multinational, multilingual drama, and another striking example of the impact his longtime friend and actress-auteur has had on some of our greatest filmmakers.  As soon as Binoche entered the picture, these talented directors ceased to become quintessentially Iranian or Taiwanese or even French artists; they were suddenly international icons, speaking to a more diverse, increasingly mainstream audience.

What we’re seeing is nothing less than a systematic “Binochification” of the global art-house circuit. As the film landscape has become more international in character, with increasing overlap among performers and artists from disparate corners of the globe, Binoche has become the kinder, gentler face of globalization at the movies, as much a symbol of cross-cultural convergence as Will Smith or Optimus Prime. If you want to compete at Cannes and play in every art-house cinema in Europe and North America, you make a movie with Juliette Binoche.

Like globalization itself, Binochification has an inexorable logic. When an actress exhibits such extraordinary attunement to mood and tone, it’s inevitable that great directors across the globe will seek her services for their films. When a performer taps into human emotions with such range and precision, it’s almost certain that audiences from Paris to Peoria, Berlin to Bangalore, will see something of their own experiences in the characters she brings to life. You can certainly pluck a schmaltzfest like Chocolat from Binoche’s filmography and make a convincing argument against the cultural homogeneity, the stamping out of regional and dramatic nuance, that often accompanies an international co-production. But you can just as easily point to her work in Certified CopyCaché, or the new Sils Maria and make the case that Binoche remains one of the cinema’s foremost interpreters of the human condition.

Assayas has described Sils Maria as “an homage to Juliette Binoche, a gift to her, written for her and inspired by her,” after she challenged him to explore the lives of women in greater depth. Binoche plays Maria, an actress struggling to negotiate the dilemmas of aging that Binoche has navigated so gracefully over the course of her career. The film is a richly layered drama about the pleasures and burdens of artistic success, filled with playful references to Binoche’s emergence as an icon of global pop culture. “Do you want to christen a shopping mall in Nanjing?” her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) asks Maria, sifting through the requests on her BlackBerry. “Do you want to star in a Spanish horror film? Do you want to do an interview with an Italian magazine targeting active women [over] 40?” The Binochification of world cinema is both the subject of the film and the creative force propelling it into existence.

Thirty years after Rendez-vous, Binoche’s other great interpretation of the life of an actress, The Clouds of Sils Maria offers the fullest expression to date of the authorial imprint Juliette Binoche leaves on the films and careers of her creative partners. The film suggests that artistic collaboration can be a powerful vehicle for self-discovery, a counterweight to the inevitable loss of self that occurs in a profession based on make-believe. As Val says to Maria during one of their lively debates about the future of the movies, a great actress can dive into a role and still be “brave enough to be herself.” As she enters her fourth decade as a performer, Juliette Binoche has achieved this cinematic ideal. She is channeling more and more of her off-screen experiences into the lives of her characters even as she loses herself in exciting new collaborations around the world. Sils Maria leaves us with the sense that all the endless hours of rehearsal, all the nights spent pounding the floor, waiting for a breakout role, are a small price to pay for the white-hot seconds when the camera is rolling and a new idea or emotion is brought into the world.