“Absolutely nothing!” That’s how Gerard Depardieu ripped into Juliette Binoche the other day. “Explain to me what the secret of this actress is meant to be? I would really like to know why she has been so esteemed for so many years. She has nothing!”
Phew! It’s not often a film star breaks ranks and offers a negative assessment of a colleague’s work – at least, not for public consumption. Depardieu, of course, is his own man and has absolutely nothing to lose. But this unprovoked attack is certainly ungallant, especially given the relatively tight circle that is the French film industry.
Surprisingly (or not, in light of his remarks), Depardieu and Binoche have never worked together – all the more remarkable given that he was certainly the most famous French international actor in the early 90s, at least until Binoche won an Oscar for The English Patient in 1996.
It’s possible that Depardieu has grown old and bitter, jealous of the success that Binoche has achieved. (In his autobiography, Gerard’s son Guillaume cursed his father’s need to be loved and desire for money.)
With the recent exception of Marion Cotillard, no French actor of the modern era has enjoyed such a lucrative sideline in Hollywood movies as Binoche, who was romanced by Johnny Depp in Chocolat, Daniel Day-Lewis in her breakthrough film The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Jeremy Irons in Damage, Ralph Fiennes in Wuthering Heights, and, uh, Steve Carell in Dan In Real Life.
If that list testifies to her beauty, we can imagine Monsieur Depardieu shrugging: there are innumerable beautiful women in the world. You only have to know how to look.
Which is true, but not so many of them are in such high demand by the world’s very best directors: Binoche counts Kieslowski, Kiarostami and Haneke among her admirers (she has worked with them all more than once), the elite of modern filmmakers. Add in her earliest supporters, Jean-Luc Godard, Andre Techiné, Leos Carax, and Philip Kaufman…. Not overlooking such stalwarts of French quality cinema as Cedric Klapisch, Diane Kurys, Patrice Leconte and Olivier Assayas… And then such trump cards as the Taiwanese master Hou Hsaio-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), the rogue American Abel Ferrara (Mary), our own Anthony Minghella and John Boorman… Few stars, French or otherwise, can boast such a bold and eclectic cv.
To which our obstreperous Depardieu might counter, “Yes, very well, but I never denied she is successful. My question was: why? What do they see in her?”
The answer to that is complex. First of all, Binoche has the intelligence and good taste to seek out these master filmmakers, and let them know that she is eager to work with the best. In his younger days, Depardieu might have done the same. But you don’t get fat paychecks working with Hou Hsaio-hsien or the Iranian, Abbas Kiarostami (whose film Certified Copy opens this week). Few stars are willing to stray so far out of their comfort zone, to adapt to different working methods, to risk something new.
So there is that creative impulse behind the scenes, that curiosity about the world – which should not be underestimated, because who an actress is may be more important than anything she simulates. Binoche, it’s true, tends not to play the formidable, intense, sometimes frightening parts that Isabelle Adjani has. Nor is she the imperious, commanding figure that Fanny Ardant often plays – in citing those two actresses, Depardieu tells us something about his taste in women.
Binoche is more subtle in her expression, and often a more introspective, vulnerable, emotional figure. Not that she is incapable of playing a modern, emancipated woman – far from it – but for all her independence and intelligence there will be shadings of self-doubt there. She’s so emotionally open that she an entire story can swing on her eyes….
Perhaps Gerard was looking the other way, but he should watch the last scene in The Flight Of The Red Balloon for a lesson in the amplitude of her body language… the extraordinary ten-minute take where her character is harassed on the metro in Code Unknown… the way Hana, the nurse, comes back to life over the course of The English Patient… the sensual delight that turns cold and tragic in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (her lightness taking on weight, as we all must)… the immersive complexity and naturalism of Summer Hours… and/or anything, any single minute, from Three Colours: Blue.
When you’ve done that, Monsieur Depardieu, come back and offer your humble apologies to this most inspiring and soulful of actresses!
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