JULIETTE BINOCHE is France’s most famous actress. She’s taken an Oscar from Hollywood, but doesn’t want to work there. Instead she came to Britain for Chocolat. Words: Tom Dawson


oanne I-Iarris knew exactly who she wanted to play the lead in the screen adaptation of her novel. It had to be Juliette Binoche. ‘She is a very versatile actress,’ says the author of the acclaimed Chocolat. ‘She’s not afraid to turn her hand to anything she feels strongly about. She’s also the mother of a small child and I thought she could draw on these experiences. And physically she’s just right. She has this slightly enigmatic presence and yet she has rich earthiness.’

But Chocolat, for which Binoche has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, reveals a hitherto unexplored side to the 37-year-old performer. The film itself is a sentimental confection, a


might be about that subject. When I read the script it reminded me of those Ernst Lubitsch films. It’s a comedy,’ she says, emitting one of her occasional throaty laughs, ’yet you go through a journey, and at the end of it you feel like living life again and loving again. My character, Vianne, is like a therapist; she listens to people and sees how they change and how it difficult the changeisf

Binoche’s preparations for playing Vianne were typically thorough. She visited choco- lateries and chocolate-makers, and even stayed with Joanne Harris at the author’s family home. ‘I went to live with her and her family for a few days over Easter,’ she says. ‘I often meet the film’s writer; I feel it’s important to see the root of


Jean-Luc Godard gave Juliette Binoche her first major role In 1984‘s Hall, Mary, and the actress has subsequently sought to work with leading European directors. Andre Techine was next with Rendezvous and enfant terrible Leos Carax followed with Bad Blood. Romantically linked, Binoche and Carax worked together again on the cult tragi-romance Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.

Tragic romance informs many of Binoche’s roles, as was the case with Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable nghfness Of Being. which secured Binoche her international reputation. Love doesn’t get much more tragic than the illicit romance in Louis Malle's Damage. which was roundly (and unfairly) hammered by critics who found it cold and depressing (which was the point).

Binoche’s appearance in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy cemented her credentials as a top class performer. and her award-winning starring role in Blue exemplifies the


embodiment of doomed womanhood’.

Patrice Leconte, who cast her in the period drama La Veuve de Saint-Pierre, found her unbelievably photogenic. ‘When you flick the lights on and say “action",’ he said, ‘she seems to take in the light and reflect it out again, which I’ve never seen before. I’ve never met an actress who works on her characters so intensely. Even after a really good take, she asks if we could do another.’

Now France’s most highly- paid film star (she is the princess to Catherine Deneuve’s reigning queen), Binoche has always retained a certain distance from Hollywood, turning down appearances in Mission: Impossible and Schindler’s List. Nor has her commitment to European auteur cinema

‘The gesture of giving chocolate is more important than the actual chocolate.’

fairytale about a single mother who arrives in a post-war French village and proceeds to change the lives of the conservative locals with the aid of her aphrodisiac chocolates. Unlike them, though, Binoche gets to laugh a rarity in most of her roles is dressed up in some colourfully alluring outfits and enjoys a romance with Johnny Depp’s Irish gypsy.

‘When I first heard the title I was intrigued,’ says the luminous Binoche in fluent English. ‘There has already been a film called Chocolat in French by Claire Denis, which was set in Africa where she was brought up, and I thought it

10 'I'HI LIOT 1-15 Mar 2001

the work. I did that with Josephine Hart on Damage and Milan Kundera on The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. For me Joanne is the Vianne character. She gave me a lot. She’s open and happy and generous and she told me that the gesture of giving chocolate in the book is more important than the actual chocolate.’

Ever since the mid-803, when she made her screen debut in Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail, Mary, Binoche has been directed by top European auteurs who have focused on her extraordinary melancholic beauty, turning her into what one critic has called, “an

naked. raw emotion Binoche projects onto the screen. Even a couple of poor films choices in the 90s (Wutherlng Heights, A Couch In New York) did nothing to tarnish her reputation, and she rode on to glory in the period swashbuckler The Horseman On The Roof. In fact, by the time Binoche stunned America by scooping the Best Actress Oscar from Lauren Bacall for The English Patient. she was heir apparent to France's queen of cinema. Catherine Deneuve.

But Binoche refused to be seduced by Hollywood’s post-Oscar courting ritual, instead returning home to reign by making three French films: Les Enfants du Slecle, Alice at Martin (for Techine) and Patrice Leconte’s fine doomed period romance, The Widow Of Saint Pierre. Chocolef might be a relatively lightweight role for Binoche. but the forthcoming Code: Unknown, directed by Austrian auteur Michael Haneke. is nothing short of magnificent. (Miles Fielder)

weakened; her next two films to be released here are a costume drama about the writer George Sand. Les Enfants du Siecle, and Michael F army Games I-Ianeke’s brilliant, episodic tale about alienation set in modern—day Paris, Code lnconnu.

Famously reticent about her private life, she confesses to seeing herself as an outsider. ‘Being an actress is such an abstract way of life,’ she says, ‘that you have to be an outsider first to understand people and then to be them.’

Chocolat opens at OFT, Glasgow, and Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 2 Mar. See review, page 28.