It’s hard for Juliette Binoche to think about her recent career trajectory from a bird’s eye view as she hurtles along within it. She has put out five films in the past two years.
Her latest is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s French-language drama “The Truth,” which is getting her Oscar buzz for her role opposite Catherine Deneuve. It screened at the International Film Festival and Awards Macau, where she was a talent ambassador this year.
When pressed, she admits that there was perhaps a turning point for her mastery of her craft that came not from being in front of the camera, but on stage in her 2008 dance-theater performance “in-i” with Akram Kham.
“I thought I was going to die every night I was going on” because of how physically demanding the show was, she said. “I probably overcame some sort of fear to find I had to trust the moment, to trust that I would be enough, that I had to go into that jump.”
Something new clicked, because acting, too, is for Binoche a jump into the unknown. “That’s why it’s so exciting,” she says seriously. “The most important thing is to know that what you’re giving is more important than yourself — then it gives you wings. Then you’re not frightened, not of age, not of not knowing. There’s a freedom that comes when what you’ve got to give to people is clear and focused and generous.”
She’s now “absolutely” getting more interesting roles as a 55-year-old cinema veteran than she was decades ago, and selects them with politically-minded care.
“I really believe that because we’re in a crisis at the moment, an actor’s choice is really important. It has weight,” she said, echoing her acceptance speech for the European Film Academy Achievement in World Cinema award she received Sunday. “Choose a film where you’re happy with the role women are playing in the story, because it’s going to feed the world, people’s minds and consciousness and reality. What you’re choosing has repercussions.”
The choice is personal as much as it is political, she said. She selects roles that she believe will “nourish her soul” — choosing to do Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” rather than “Jurassic Park,” for example, when the two roles came to her at the same time. “‘Jurassic Park’ would have been fun maybe and good for the fame and money, but I knew that ‘Blue’ was going to nourish something inside of me,” she said.
She first met Kore-eda 12 years ago. When asked to describe something about the process of working with Kore-eda and Deneuve that she hasn’t spoken of before, she paused and thought carefully, slowly choosing her words.
“It felt to me that in making movies, Kore-eda has found a way of speaking to himself and speaking to the others,” she assessed, before elaborating. “I’m not sure Kore-eda is that comfortable in communication. His need of communicating is so big, and he doesn’t know how to do it, so it becomes even stronger.”
On set, Deneuve was prickly before she softened. It took quite some time for her to warm up and speak to Binoche with the more informal French pronoun “tu,” instead keeping her at an arm’s length with a colder “vous.” Her endless cigarettes could also be used as a tracker of her affections: she would only reluctantly allow Binoche to pry them from her at first.
But the two French acting legends eventually made their peace. “With Catherine, I really took care of her like my mother. I felt I saw her fragility, which from an outsider’s point of view you don’t maybe see. That really touched me.”
On stage at a masterclass Monday, Binoche accepted an invitation to collaborate with her interlocutor, “Wild Goose Lake” director Diao Yinan. Later, off stage, she reiterated a number of times that she’d love to make a film with a Chinese director.
“China is huge country that for us was a bit hidden for a long time. Now that the connection can be made, it’s like opening a door. It’s very exciting, because you want to know your neighbor,” she said. The country was perhaps freed from the movie traditions embedded in the Western world, she reflected, saying, “I think China can really bring something new and the collaboration could be really something fantastic.”
That freedom could exist even within the bounds of strict censorship, she said, though she admitted that being censored herself would be a difficult experience.
“I want to be free. But there’s many ways to be free. There are inner ways to free yourself,” as a performer, she said. “There’s always ways to express, even though it’s hard. I do have compassion for the artists who can’t really express themselves here,” she added, referencing how Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, for example, had to “learn a way to be himself and yet work within certain boundaries.” The two collaborated on 2010’s “Certified Copy.”
Yet her advice to young actors is to break all the rules. “Don’t be a stereotypical good girl. It’s not helpful,” she said. “Be truthful to your emotions, your heart and your vision. Go into the new. And work, work, work, work, work.”