Juliette Binoche is no slave to beauty or age. Instead, in her recent roles, the Academy Award–winning French actress and former Lancôme cosmetics model has been embracing midlife in its tragedy, wisdom and unexpected joys, exploring rich and multifaceted characters. In her current film, Let the Sunshine In, she plays Isabelle, a divorcée living alone in Paris, practicing her art and dating whom she pleases.
At first glance, Isabelle’s self-empowered, carefree life may not seem so far from Binoche’s own. But such notions are quickly dispelled in the first scene, which finds Isabelle lying under a portly man (Xavier Beauvois). When he asks if she’s coming, she wears a neutral expression and assures him she’s fine. By her level of engagement, it would be easy to assume the encounter is a business transaction, but in the scene that follows we learn that Isabelle is actually into the guy. She is beautiful, creative and sexy, and he’s a balding, middle-aged married banker. It’s not the money she’s after, and obviously not his body, so what, then?
Subsequent relationships with an unnamed actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and Sylvain (Paul Blain), a guy she meets in a bar, begin to illuminate the engine at the heart of Isabelle’s hookups.
“Would I go out with a banker like that? No. Have I gone out with an actor like that? No,” Binoche tells L.A. Weekly about her journey to the core of her character. “I cannot say [how] specifically but I understand the complexity and how we relate to different exes. How do we find somebody we’re comfortable with or don’t feel diminished by or feel disrespected by? That’s the real question, not only for women but men as well.”
“La Binoche,” as she is known in France, has lived a movie-star life in the exemplary tradition of past generations. She is classy with star wattage, charisma, sex appeal and, most important, formidable acting talent. Born in 1964, she came of age at the end of the heyday of the French nouvelle vague, overlapping with Louis Malle, with whom she made Damage; Jacques Demy; and co-founders of the movement Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard. When she was 21, she starred in Godard’s Hail Mary, a modern retelling of the Virgin Mary, which was protested by the Catholic Church. She is also a model, most famously for Lancôme.
Throughout her career, Binoche has shined in plum roles in Hollywood films, and in more artistic endeavors, such as 1996’s The English Patient, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, beating out legend Lauren Bacall, and Chocolat, for which she was nominated for Best Actress. She has worked with internationally renowned directors, choosing to star in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue instead of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, and later making Shirin and Certified Copy with Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, followed by blockbuster Godzilla. “I try to find the truth in every single moment I can,” she says. To that end, in giving onscreen life to women in midlife, she played a midcareer actor being edged out by an ingenue in Clouds of Sils Maria; in the upcoming All That You Know, she plays an older woman who sets up a fake Facebook account as a 24-year-old.
A glamorous favorite of the red carpet in Cannes, she even graced the official poster in 2010. Constantly working, Binoche leads an active life off the set as well, sometimes with a man beside her, sometimes not. The men in and out of her life include filmmaker Leos Carax, various French actors including Benoit Magimel, with whom she has a daughter, and scuba diver Andre Halle, with whom she has a son.
“Yeah, relationships, trying to find the person you’re going to be able to feel true love with, feel a real connection with — of course I relate to the character, but I cannot say I’ve been living the same relationships she’s been living in the story. And as an actor you have to relate to every single moment you’re playing, so you have to make parallels in order to embody the situation,” Binoche says, sharing that women have come up to her to tell her they recognize themselves, or some of their relationships, in Let the Sunshine In. “I think at any age you’re looking for love, true love. So I think the echo that this film has is real.”
Let the Sunshine In, based on a book by French philosopher-author Roland Barthes, was directed by Claire Denis and written by Denis with Christine Angot. Working with the director was exhilarating and exhausting, less for the emotional wringer Binoche’s character endures than for the abbreviated production schedule. Denis shot it with no rehearsals, putting her actors directly into the action.
“She paid attention to where she was putting the camera on me and looking at my face or looking at my body or in space. She loves shooting people,” Binoche says of taking direction from the 72-year-old filmmaker. “So some directors, sometimes they have an idea of where they want to put the camera but they’re not really looking at the actors. She needs to look, like a sculptress or a painter, and take the angle she loves.”
Anyone familiar with Denis’ body of work will not be surprised by the rawness and emotional veracity at the heart of Let the Sunshine In. Since her breakout 1998 film, Chocolat (not Binoche's film of the same title, which was directed by Lasse Hallström), set in Cameroon, one of the West African nations where she spent her childhood, Denis has often returned to the prickly subject of colonialism and race. A broader sense of alienation and “the other” can be found in her Beau Travail, based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, in which a sea captain is so taken with the beauty of a young sailor that he feels compelled to destroy him.
In Let the Sunshine In, no one’s life is destroyed. Yet Isabelle fails again and again to connect with the men in her life until, at the urging of a clairvoyant (Gerard Depardieu) in the final scene, she is persuaded to, well, let the sunshine in.
“Juliette learned the text and it became her. She understood the ambiguity of it. It was, in a way, describing the totally miserable moments of her life and also of the strength of the real Juliette,” Denis tells L.A. Weekly. “My way to direct her was easy, it was in fact loving her, loving her beauty and asking her to reveal completely how sexy she is, not to hide it. She is a warrior, a vulnerable warrior, like a lot of women.”
Let the Sunshine In, released overseas last year, opened on screens in New York and Los Angeles last week. The film has received mainly positive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, with a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for what it’s worth. In any case, it augurs well for the next cinematic collaboration between the actress and director, High Life, co-starring Robert Pattinson. It is Denis’ first English-language film project.
“It’s not a science-fiction film. It’s a film in space,” Denis explains, adding that she conceived the concept some time ago and “it could only be told in English.” She expects to have a final cut in June.
“Since Claire wrote the script for High Life, it’s something that is quite mysterious,” Binoche says. “I’ve never seen a film like this. It’s very personal.”
To the actress, that is a sign of an honest work. “You have to relate to what you live in the film. So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
Let the Sunshine In is playing in select theaters throughout Greater Los Angeles.