If you’re a filmmaker, you can’t ask for a better on-camera muse than Juliette Binoche. So it makes sense that Claire Denis, as accomplished and revered a French director as Binoche is an actor, has turned her lens on the Oscar-winning English Patient star in three recent films—and presented her with completely different challenges each time. Binoche brought rom-com-esque humor to Let The Sunshine In, then strange, deranged eroticism in the sci-fi-inflected High Life, and now, romantic vulnerability in the Berlin International Film Festival award winner Both Sides Of The Blade (in select theaters July 8).
The story of modern Parisian woman Sara (Binoche), whose relationship with Jean (Vincent Lindon) becomes unexpectedly threatened by his old friend and her old flame François (Grégoire Colin), Both Sides Of The Blade is a film that foregrounds profound, resonant, raw emotion in its actors. As Binoche reveals, filming it wasn’t exactly a picnic; her artistic mission, taking audiences “to the intimate place of people’s hearts, minds, and bodies,” was put to the test like never before. Amid a particularly busy year—she played Sophie Brunet in HBO Max’s hit The Staircase, and will next appear in the thriller Paradise Highway and as Coco Chanel in Apple TV+’s series The New Look—Binoche made time for The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: What was it like reuniting with Claire Denis for Both Sides Of The Blade?
Juliette Binoche: It was quite different as a whole film, as a whole experience. And I’ve felt the same with directors I work with two or three times: they’re different circumstances, different stories, different periods of time in my life, in their lives. So we’re changing, transforming as we go. And different actors, it brings another energy. This one was tougher. Claire, I felt, was letting it happen between Vincent and myself. Knowing that we’re quite strong personalities and very different in the way we work, I think she wanted to film as an observer in that configuration.
But I have to say, at the end of it, I found it very painful because I felt alone. I even went through a period of time where I felt betrayed because I take things with my heart, not my mind. [Laughs] Once, I remember taking my script and throwing it on the floor. Now I can laugh about it and we speak to each other and all, but it was a challenge. And I think not only for me, also for Vincent, because he [hasn’t worked with] actresses who say, “I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen like that.” And I think it was also difficult for Claire because the subject matter itself is very tough. You know, it’s a conflict. It’s really a confrontation of fears, and need of freedom, and need of control. I didn’t know Vincent and I didn’t know his reputation, so it was a discovery. And it was tough, that’s all I can say.
AVC: How did you approach Sara and her journey in this story?
JB: I think Sara is independent. She’s very involved in her work. She seems to be a happy person. She’s in that relationship, even though it must be sometimes heavy to be the one dragging the whole family. She cares for Jean, her boyfriend; there’s love between them. And yet, when she meets with a past life’s love, she’s the first to be surprised to feel that need in her. And that heart beating and that overwhelming feeling she has for that past love. So instead of putting it aside—she is not that kind—she wants to understand why she feels that. And also it’s something she cannot control. She needs to investigate, needs to explore, needs to live. And of course, it brings a lot of fear into her partner and probably into herself as well. But there’s something she needs to go through. And she’s wishing for that love she’s having, that he will trust that they can pass that wave together.
AVC: Do you develop a shorthand with a director like Claire, who you’ve worked with multiple times?
JB: No, Claire is waiting—what I feel with me anyway—she’s just waiting to be touched. It’s as simple as that. She’s waiting to believe it and to be touched. And whether it’s believable or not, she doesn’t care, it’s more [about being] touched. To feel something.
AVC: I see what you mean about Claire letting it happen. The way she analyzes your face in close up is so evocative. You’re saying she’s trusting her actors to bring it?
JB: Yeah. I know that when we started the film, they already had made a decision that with Sara, there are close-ups. And with [Jean], it’s more his point of view so it’s behind his back. With the editing, I’m not sure she followed that idea. But I know when we were shooting, that’s what I felt. But I’m not aware whether it’s very close up or not. It doesn’t matter to me. Truth can sustain close up or a wider shot, it doesn’t matter. And sometimes the volume has to change between theater and films, of course. But for this one, you know you have to expose yourself anyway, emotionally. That’s the deal!
AVC: The physical intimacy in Both Sides Of The Blade feels so strikingly natural. Going off this notion of exposing yourself emotionally, do you approach sex scenes differently from other scenes?
JB: It’s never easy. But you’ve got to give to the character and to the story you’re telling a reality. Because you have your body. I’m not looking forward to those scenes, but you have to be brave and go into it. So that might be some contradiction you’re going through as an actor, but you’ve got to give a higher perspective, which is, let’s say, at its best, art.
AVC: I wanted to ask you about your legacy as an artist. Firstly, which of your roles do people most tend to associate with you?
AVC: Looking back, how do you think about such characters? Do you abandon them the moment you’re done inhabiting them?
JB: Well, I don’t have to abandon them because they’re in me somewhere. But at the same time it’s like paths. It goes into the memory drawer and you live with the present, and have other characters. I’m working on Coco Chanel at the moment so I’m with Coco. And after, I’ll be somewhere else. That’s the deal of an actor: You recreate life. And the more you’re aging, the more you have experiences and you have more depth, I think. You know, like wine that has more body after years. And I think an actor is like that, or a director or a painter—you have to have a nature. Acting is a nature, you have to have a personality. You have to say something, to express something to the world in order to be in front of the camera and to embody someone or a story. There’s something about jumping into places that are different and that you’re willing to go into and to share with your partners, actors, the directors, of course—but also the audience. The consciousness, the heart of the audience. It can happen to me that I’m already connected with the audience in certain scenes because that’s where I want it to go. I want to go to the intimate place of people’s hearts, minds, and bodies. That’s my real ambition.
AVC: You support so many charitable organizations and have spoken out about politics. How do you make artistic decisions in the context of the impact you want to make?
JB: It’s a big question. You can, of course, make laws and we need laws. But where change really takes place, the root, is in the heart and consciousness. So I think as an actor, the more human I can make my characters, it’s the best way I can hope for real world transformation. That’s the way I can be active. It’s good to go out and say things. But as far as I’m concerned, I really feel that when people are touched by something that hits them—without them knowing why it hits them—that’s where I think that it’s opening up some kind of consciousness. But you need to be touched. That’s why the responsibility of directors and actors is so important. Because a lot of people watch films. And to open your heart, of course, you’ve got to live and be as present and alive as possible with your family or friends and your social life. But you need time for that space in you. That intimate space that needs to be hit in an emotional dimension. I believe that. Because I think emotion, it links the body and mind. It’s not for nothing that the heart is between our guts, our sexual organs, and the head. You need to link those two parts. Otherwise, you’re not human.