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Interview: French film icon Juliette Binoche

Written by
Michael Smith

French film icon Juliette Binoche is one of the world's great actresses. She has won an Oscar (for The English Patient), starred opposite Johnny Depp in a rom-com (Chocolat) and worked with directors as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard (Hail Mary), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Flight of the Red Balloon) and Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy). Her latest film, L'Atessa (The Wait), is an unusually accomplished feature debut by the Italian writer/director Piero Messina, and features one of her finest performances to date. In this drama, Anna (Binoche) is mourning the untimely death of her son at her Italian villa when the son's girlfriend, Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), arrives on vacation without knowing the bad news. The two women bond as Anna pretends her son is still alive and will be re-joining them for Easter.

I recently spoke to Binoche about the unique demands of the film, which opens in New York and L.A. this weekend via Oscilloscope Laboratories.

What was it about this story—and the grief-stricken character of Anna—that attracted you to the project?

The magical thinking that Anna chooses to live in order to face the tragedy of her life, the loss of her son, was fascinating to me. She’s not able to say the truth, not because she’s manipulative, but because she cannot say those words: "He’s dead." I resisted playing a woman losing her child after Blue, because my experience with Kieslowski was so joyful. Somehow I wanted to protect that memory. But when I met with Piero Messina, there was such an intelligence in his eyes and a will in his way of talking that I was really tempted to make his first film.

Anna is almost always on-screen, but her motivations are often ambiguous. Why doesn't she tell Jeanne the truth?

It is probably impossible to imagine the pain of losing a child, and I can very well relate to the people who are inventing sort of a space in them in order to accept the loss. There might be an element of wanting to protect Jeanne from the pain...I don’t think Anna is perverse; she doesn’t know how to cope with her pain and loss. I was very keen to play moments where she’s willing, trying to say the truth, but she can’t. I hope the audience will be able to feel it.

In recent years you've worked with a lot of the world's best directors: Hou Hisao-Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, David Cronenberg, Olivier Assayas, etc. How is working with veterans like these different than working with a first-time feature filmmaker like Messina?

I considered Piero as an experienced director from the beginning. There’s no halfway. If you’re behind the camera, you have to know why you’re there and be in the truth of the moment. It's like a dancer dancing in front of the audience—he or she has to be a dancer. We had a very straightforward and honest relationship on the set, he always said the truth as I did. The flow of the work was full and loving.

You and Lou de Laâge have some very emotional scenes together. How was that? 

We never rehearsed before. Lou has this quality of being in the moment, with her ears as open as her eyes—there was no pushing. It came naturally between us. The silences made the relationship, as she’s trying to figure out what is going on.

Your characters in both The Wait and Clouds of Sils Maria act as a kind of a surrogate mother to another young woman. Is it important for you to explore the theme of female relationships?

I never thought that in Sils Maria I’m a surrogate mother. There’s an awkward seduction between the actress and her assistant because of the play they’re rehearsing. Here in L’Attesa, I don’t think that she’s a mother, I think it's more of a chess game: How far can she go, how far can I avoid her questions? There’s an obvious complicity as well as some distance...I love exploring behaviors, feelings, thoughts and going through them with a full sensation.

The Wait opens on Friday, April 29 in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and LA at the Royal.

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