At 58 — 25 years after her Oscar for The English Patient, 12 years after she became the first-ever best actress winner at all three top European film fests (Cannes, Venice and Berlin) — the luminously beautiful Juliette Binoche is having a moment. She played the most intriguingly mysterious character in the fact-based 2022 miniseries The Staircase, the editor of a documentary about accused wife murderer Michael Peterson (played by her fellow Oscar winner Colin Firth), with whom she had a 13-year affair. Now she plays a woman torn in half by forbidden love in Claire Denis’ sensual, heartrending new film, Both Sides of the Blade. Binoche tells AARP about the deeper meanings of her latest triumph.
Congratulations! Right after your hit The Staircase, you’ve got Both Sides of the Blade, which won Claire Denis best director at the Berlin fest.
Binoche: I also play a truck driver in Paradise Highway [premiering July 29, with Morgan Freeman as an FBI human-trafficking investigator on her trail]. And I play Coco Chanel in The New Look on Apple TV+ [with Ben Mendelsohn as her archrival, Christian Dior].
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In Both Sides of the Blade, you play Sara, who left her lover François (Grégoire Colin) for hunky rugby player Jean (Vincent Lindon) a decade ago. Suddenly, François crashes back into their lives, inflaming the old coals of Sara’s passion. What do you think of her painful choice?
She doesn’t know why her heart is beating like crazy when she sees him again. She thought it was all resolved, because she’s happy in a relationship. She doesn’t want to change anything. But suddenly this past love is coming, and she has to explore it. She’s not going to put her heart in the fridge and say it didn’t exist. She’s a brave woman who is trying to say, “OK, this is so crazy. I don’t want it, but I have to be honest with what I’m feeling.”
Yet her marriage is still hot! In the very first scene, Sara and Jean are wildly, romantically in love, floating offshore on an idyllic vacation.
So exhilarating! We shot more or less in chronology, starting with the scenes at the sea, and there’s a truth that comes out of us.
The bedroom scenes are so realistic: not explicit but very sexy, because convincingly emotional. Were they challenging to shoot?
As an actor, you have to be brave. And so it’s always a challenge.
On her radio show, Sara interviews people about anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon and the plight of Lebanese refugees. There’s a parallel between her emotional life and her professional life, talking about people torn between identities and choices, the struggle not to be reduced to one identity, to stay free.
Yeah, definitely. Claire wanted to talk about Lebanon’s fragile social situation and also give my character an independent life, open to the world. The film opens to a wider perspective.
Sometimes it seems like a John Cassavetes movie, full of improvisation and almost a duel between actors.
I really learned my lines, being precise. And Vincent asked Claire for the freedom to improvise. Without rehearsal, we would throw ourselves into it.
Did it have an emotional impact on you after the cameras stopped?
Yes, definitely. I was hit by it, and I think Vincent and Claire felt the same, because it was such an emotional roller-coaster, descending into the cost of freedom. She doesn’t feel like she’s being unfaithful, but it’s very selfish. It’s almost impossible. It’s painful.
The movie makes you almost feel like there’s no such thing as “free love.”
Love costs! But real love is free. That’s the contradiction. I don’t know why I need to go there. But I need to go there.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.